Sarah Palin versus the Intellectuals

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Editor’s Note

This article was first published by Culture11 in November 2008. Reprinted with permission on

Any advice offered to the Republican party from a self-proclaimed liberal who admits he “couldn’t care less” for its future might reasonably arouse suspicion. However, Mark Lilla does precisely this (“The Perils of Populist Chic,” Wall Street Journal, November 2008) when he provocatively announces that whatever may become of the political right, the “conservative intellectual tradition is already dead.” Lilla’s post-mortem of respectable conservative thought in America is apparently well evidenced by what he calls the “Palin farce,” or the philosophical bankruptcy that must be root cause of taking Sarah Palin seriously, as a vice presidential candidate or otherwise.

His diagnosis is not offered in the spirit of partisan celebration — quite the contrary, Lilla explains that the utter impoverishment of conservative thought is not good even for liberals; he laments the closing of the conservative mind as a partisan of political philosophy, as one who wishes for a return to the fruitful, cerebral contests between the two parties’ respective intellectual soldiers. Lilla might has well have declared that he couldn’t care less for the future of the Democratic party — his concern seems not to be the results of practical policy but rather the conceptual fodder for sophisticated philosophical dispute. In fact, he never once makes an argument regarding a substantive policy issue or attempts to demonstrate the way this supposed mental rot has led to legislative blunders.

Lilla’s essay is not so much post-partisan as it is post-political — if Republicans today would only recapture the “sophistication” and “bookish seriousness” of yesteryear we could once again reignite the great debates of the DC salons. The death of conservative intellectualism means Lilla has no worthy opponents for deep, meditative combat; ostensibly reinforcing the conservative caricature of our nation’s hyper-educated elite, the only people left smart enough for Lilla to talk to are other liberal professors.

Of course, the implication of Lilla’s argument is that, by way of contrast, the Democrat party is quite alive intellectually and has a plentiful supply of philosopher kings. However, Lilla never bothers to list for us who these luminaries are (other than himself) although he does provide a catalogue of the great conservative public intellectuals who saved us all from the “grim 70’s,” a time when “liberalism seemed utterly exhausted.” He never provides us with a parallel historical narrative describing how precisely liberalism re-energized itself in the face of the “intellectually ascendant” conservative challenge or how the ideological foundations of 70’s liberalism were duly fortified by this challenge. In fact, the never explicitly stated subtext of Lilla’s editorial is that, following the collapse of philosophical liberalism and the rejuvenation of philosophical conservatism their roles somehow reversed.

It would follow, according to Lilla, that if we properly inspect the political platforms of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden we will presumably find all kinds of innovative ideas unrecognizable to the liberalism of a generation ago. We are led to believe that racial identity politics and thoughtless multiculturalism, public policy driven by stale technocratic sociology, reflexive redistributive economics, unwieldy labor regulation, trade protectionism, soft internationalism, etc have all been decisively rejected in exchange for fresh, new ideas. Lilla clearly seems to believe that contemporary liberalism is now in the ascendant intellectually, though he never bothers to edify us with a persuasive argument to this effect.

What Lilla does articulate in great detail is that the cause of the conservative philosophical decline: the transformation of their legitimate criticisms of the real intellectual excesses and political irresponsibility of the professoriate into an intestinal and illegitimate contempt for all things intellectual. As Lilla puts it, a reasonable disdain for the “radical chic” of the left has morphed into a completely unhinged “populist chic” of the right’s own contrivance; besides overturning the high-minded and aristocratic concern regarding a kind of “populist paranoia” that was once central to neoconservative thought, “populist chic” is merely the “inverse” of “radical chic” and “no less absurd, comical, or ominous.” A conservative movement once characterized by “maturity,” “seriousness,” historical perspective,” and “sense of proportion,” has been replaced by “angry conservatives” who “decided to cast their lot with ‛ordinary Americans.’”

Still, the hard evidence Lilla marshals in favor of his thesis is less than impressive: conservatives have clearly forsaken these intellectual virtues by choosing to either ignore or lionize Palin’s considerable vices: Lilla goes as far to say that her “ignorance, provinciality, and populist demagoguery” are so uncongenial to rigorous thought that she represents “everything older conservative thinkers once stood against.” Nevertheless, it becomes clear that Lilla’s position on Palin has less to do with her unspectacular academic credentials than to do with her lack of cultural urbanity: it’s easy to argue that she’s not sophisticated in the Ivy League mold, or that she fails to evince the “bookish seriousness” of his Columbia colleagues. From Lilla’s perspective there is something painfully ordinary, even uncouth about Palin’s PTA persona and this belletristic instinct of his is more powerful than any simple intellectual critique: one could hardly contend that Joe Biden radiates such philosophical gravity but Lilla clearly doesn’t consider his choice for vice president to be a “farce.”

Palin’s provinciality seems to consist in her preference for small town values over rootless cosmopolitanism. The reference to her ignorance can’t simply be a matter of her command over this or that subject matter — the relevant facts can be learned with enough intensive study — everyone understands that the best of candidates ride a learning curve in preparation for the highest office in the land, and that includes Obama (and veterans like Biden and McCain). Her ignorance is apparently a function of her “populist demagoguery,” or her obvious attraction to the virtues of the ordinary citizen in their everyday, quotidian circumstances. Of course, she must embrace the common man as every politician must, but Palin does so without sufficient irony, without tongue in cheek, without distinguishing herself from their unwashed lot. Palin’s sin is not appealing to the common man — Barack Obama did this with great rhetorical skill — but in doing so sincerely. Her approach has none of the hortatory acrobatics or the soothing therapeutic quality of Obama’s more graceful gestures, not to mention his thinly veiled sense of cultural superiority.

In the absence of compelling argument to support his position, Lilla’s editorial is little more than an essay length complaint that we now take the prudence of the ordinary man as seriously as the technocratic expertise of the intelligentsia; conservatives “mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders.” For all the influence the original gang of neoconservatives apparently had over him, Lilla’s own view of politics is remarkably dismissive of their concerns regarding the political stewardship of our often “disoriented elites”; he believes that an enlightened class of philosophical experts should beneficiently manage the benighted rest of us. Lilla’s essay reveals very little about the intellectual life of the common man and a lot about his cartoonish interpretation of what he takes to be the common man’s excruciatingly banal existence.

Lilla might not care for party politics or practical policy making very much but he does deeply “care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole.” One could argue that this exaggerated concern is itself premised upon a less than sober estimation of the value of political theory to practice, or that it misses the extent to which both political theory and practice depend upon the prudence of those with real political, military, and economic experience. Still, even if Lilla only aims to preserve the integrity of intellectual dispute in America so that it transcends simple minded mockery and ridicule, he could do no better than to temper his own indignant hyperbole.

Ivan Kenneally, “Sarah Palin Versus the Intellectuals,” Culture11, November 2008.

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