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Palin’s anti-elitism establishes new test in U.S. politics

Sarah Palin has done a favor for the punditry: She has exposed one of the underlying texts of the conservative movement as concocted by Karl Rove. By stoking the resentment of religious middle-class patriots toward “elitists,” Palin has established a new standard in American politics: “dumb as me” (DAM).  If you meet this test, they will vote for you.  The more uninformed and prejudiced you sound, the more you seem like “jes-folks,” especially if dressed to the nines by Nieman-Marcus.

Palin represents a large group of semi-educated soccer moms and dads who inherited an affluent, stable suburban life and figure they earned it. Sarah speaks to them: “We don’t know much, but we love our families and drive them around; isn’t that enough?”


Palin is far less a cause than a symptom of a blithe indifference in suburbia and parts of rural and urban America to the quality and vigor of American education, and the information ordinary citizens  need for democracy to function. One thing, however, is sure: Americans may not know much, but a new poll shows that 98 percent of them feel they know enough about her to have an opinion. Katie Couric apparently emerges as a reliable source. As Gerald Seib, writing in the Oct. 24-26 Wall Street Journal noted:  “Some politicians work for decades to get that kind of name recognition. Sarah Palin got it in seven weeks, which makes her one of the most amazing political stories of our times.”

What is truly amazing is that a person who describes the vice president’s duties as “more or less running the Senate” (False; see U.S. Constitution, Article I) and her foreign-policy experience (without irony) as having observed the coastline of Russia from Alaska, is seen in a “very positive” light by 75 percent of Republicans, compared to 42 percent who hold the same view of McCain.
The uninformed: more easily manipulated
One of the secrets of the DAM strategy is to encourage private sectarian education through vouchers and charter schools while choking off federal — and thus state —  spending for public education and tuition grants. From the point of DAM, the dumber the better. An uninformed, sectarian and resentful body politic can be more easily manipulated and entranced with voodoo economics, pumped-up patriotism, guns and gay-bashing.
Apart from her own contempt for an educated class of non-moose skinners, and lacking a rudimentary civics-class understanding of American government, Palin brings a breathtaking ignorance of the role of government regulation in markets. She is thus unable meaningfully to critique the inadequate explanations of the meltdown offered by former seer and derivatives advocate Alan Greenspan. Greenspan now admits that his reverence for unfettered markets, which began more than 40 years ago at the knee of wacked-out Ayn Rand, is “flawed.” Thanks, Alan. This after trillions of dollars of value have vaporized, at a cost to ordinary citizens who invested their retirement savings in the market.

Willful unpreparedness
This was not, as Greenspan would have it, the financial equal of a tsunami, but the Katrina-like consequence of willful unpreparedness. Perhaps someone in the press who has bothered to find out should ask Palin to explain what a mortgage-backed security-turned-derivative actually is. My guess is that the reply would be, “I dunno, but I’ll go find out and bring it back to ya.”
That answer would probably be just fine with the dumb-as-me crowd, who have watched from the sidelines as the American and global economies have been gutted like a moose, as two wars have been prosecuted with corruption and incompetence, and as American exceptionalism has turned from worldwide support and sympathy after 9/11 to exceptional levels of international contempt.

C. Ford Runge is a professor of applied economics and law at the University of Minnesota. This article reflects his views and not those of the university.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 10/30/2008 - 12:56 pm.

    The dumbing down of America has been a multi-decade project of the entertainment industry, fundamentalistic religion, commerce and a host of other cultural forces. The erosion of education, especially the promotion of critical thinking, is the flip side of these developments. It is not, therefore, a surprise that the Palin phenomenon has energized many people. She is reality TV in politics bringing her religion of faith WITHOUT reason along with her. Win or lose, Palin with survive the election to continue to be a political force
    among the Republican ase for a long time to come. The pro-ignorance, anti-“elitist” cultural winds will fill her sails.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/30/2008 - 03:55 pm.

    Guess I missed your course, professor, about where to buy credentials so that I am worthy of a voice. Glad to know you’re out there to save my pea-brained, graduate-degreed, children-loving, Republican life.

  3. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 10/30/2008 - 08:18 pm.

    You totally missed the point, Allison. Ignorance can be cured with education and should not be celebrated. Palin doesn’t know, she knows that she doesn’t know and she doesn’t care that she doesn’t know. She thinks it doesn’t matter if she is wrong, and when she is called out on here willful ignorance she blames the liberal media for exposing her. She blames Katie Couric for entrapping her.

    Credentials aren’t bought, they are earned, and the people who have worked hard and earned them should be thanked. Instead we praise those who have found a sudden celebrity on the campaign trail, and make heroes out of “Joe the Plumber,” and others who wilfully distort the Obama tax plan.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 10/31/2008 - 07:46 am.

    Heading into the weekend just ahead of the finals of “American Idiot”–oops, I mean the elections, Dr. Runge raises some valid points. Discussion of important issues (for instance, have you looked at your 401k lately?) is second-fiddle to attack ads from third parties and candidates themselves charging that the opposition is this, that and the next thing. Little or nothing is said about what *they* would do if elected/reelected.

    As Sir Winston Churchill said so eloquently, “Democracy is the only form of government where the people get exactly what they deserve.”

  5. Submitted by Rod Loper on 10/31/2008 - 09:43 am.

    As a liberal elitist who has gutted innumerable big
    game animals with no sense of cultural inner conflict,
    I am nonetheless baffled that Alan Greenspan and Palin
    types can comingle in the same party. I think the
    common ground is “I got mine, go get your own”.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/31/2008 - 11:24 am.

    Allison’s comment doesn’t just miss the point – it actually reinforces the whole point of the story. Her response to the claim of anti-elitism is based on anti-elitism. In her world, Runge’s analysis is discredited because he is a professor, as opposed one of the “children-loving” regular old folks like her. Elitist Runge (who apparently hates children) is just looking down at the regular folks from his ivory tower.

    After one of the debates, I remember some conservative commentators criticizing Obama for being “too professorial,” as that apparently is now a derogatory term. I just thought Obama sounded really smart, with McCain sounding less so and Palin sounding like an idiot. I had always thought that having a smart president was a good thing. Now I know that being smart just means you are an elitist.

  7. Submitted by Pat Igo on 10/31/2008 - 11:53 am.

    Why is it that Sarah Palin scares the hell out of the Libs? Here is my take.
    She represents America at its best. She represents the the Joe lunch bucket guys, the union workers, blue collar workers, sportsman and good old fashioned motherhood in this country today. She stands for the vast amount of families out there in those blue states that still put country first.
    She also has the highest favorable rating of any Governor in the country.
    Doesn’t manner what the lefties think. I like to call her “Americas Sweetheart”

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/31/2008 - 01:19 pm.

    Sarah Palin doesn’t scare “the Libs” at all. Once it became clear just how corrupt and unqualified Palin was, she began to hurt McCain’s electoral chances. I think the Libs would like nothing more than to see Palin get the Republican nomination in 2012. Given her legal problems, however, Palin will be lucky to keep her current job.

    What does scare the Libs (and what should scare everyone) is the celebration of ignorance as a virtue.

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