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.
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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