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Sarah Palin – Midwife to an Idiocracy?

April 13, 2010

One of my all-time favorite movie quotes comes from the scene in ‘Broadcast News’ in which the smart but schlumpy Albert Brooks describes his objection to the newly-hired, pretty-boy anchor (played by William Hurt) as follows:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail…he will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit….

— Broadcast News, 1987

Bearing in mind that the “bit by little bit” process of lowering our standards has proceeded at an impressive pace over the two decades since the movie came out, I can’t help but wonder whether Sarah Palin represents the natural conclusion of the process.

Palin’s ‘truthiness’ approach to policy discussions, and the speed with which she seems to have transitioned from mere darling of the freakazoid wing of the Republican Party to bona fide political kingmaker, seems more in line with Broadcast News’ version of the Anti-Christ than with what we’ve come to expect from the long line of asinine political muckrakers from which she descends.

As unnatural is it seems to apply the word to her, it strikes me that there are two reasonable schools of thought relative to the demoiselle from Wasilla. The first – and probably most emotionally satisfying – is that she’s gotten to where she is today by cynically exploiting the fear of those intellectually-challenged Americans who are capable of understanding their lack of economic success as caused by anything other than some evil force that’s managed to come between them and Jesus. This understanding of Sarah is completely natural for those of us who have been gifted with the capacity for intelligent thought: we think about things and presume that others must as well. So since what comes out of her mouth is so obviously moronic it could only be a willful tactic intended to serve a larger strategy. I mean, nobody could be that stupid, right? Right? Right?!??

There is, however, another reasonable interpretation of the Palin. It’s that she really is a childish, simple-minded rube herself – a good lookin’, wise-crackin’ good ‘ol girl who’s jes doin’ her gosh darndest for the good ‘ol people of the good ol’ US of A. Standin’ up for God guns & country, facin’ off with ol’ Barack Obama, that dark-skinned smoothie who looks just like everything granma told us to be suspicious of. Y’know – when we were  sittin’ by the pot-bellied stove, jes talkin’ like  good people do.

As difficult as it is for intelligent people to wrap their minds around that possibility – and as deeply disappointing as it is to contemplate that someone that stupid could come so far so fast – that possibility bears serious consideration.

Let’s start by naming the two versions of the demi-Governor of Alaska. We’ll call them ‘Evil Sarah’ and ‘Stupid Sarah – ES and SS for short. Since each has vastly different implications for the future of our country, think it’s worth exploring each in turn.

Evil Sarah

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has long promoted Public Choice Theory, the notion that elected leaders use their offices primarily as a means to advance their own personal interests. In this deeply cynical conflation of marketplace economics and political theory, elected officials should be seen as neither public servants nor stewards of institutions, but rather as careerists who use government in the same way that executives use corporations – to amass power, or money, or both. The most obvious feature of this worldview is that it creates the perfect “intellectual” framework Tea-Party style anti-government populism. What’s slightly-less obvious, but perhaps more important in trying to analyze its social impact, is that Public Choice Theory is to politics what ‘greed is good’ is to Wall Street. To Armey & his fellow travelers, using the office to which one is elected to line one’s pockets is not only expected, but the mark of a savvy, successful operator. Maybe we can call this ‘anti-statesmanship’.

In the context of Armey’s toxic worldview, Palin’s choice to quit her Governorship to pursue money & fame is the sign of a winner; no one has any right to expect that her public persona is anything more than artifice, or that she spends one more minute allowing her elected office to hold her back than absolutely necessary. The office was a vehicle, and once it had run its course it was completely proper to cast it aside. As to her post-Alaska activities, she has no more responsibility as a moral actor than does any other force of nature. If she succeeds by tearing apart the fabric of the nation, bully for her – it’s surely just a sign that the fabric was weak and needed tearing. Dumb, smart, right, wrong, good, evil – they’re irrelevant concepts. She pursues her own self-interest. All just part of God’s great plan.*

Viewed in this context, Palin is simply the most visible expression of a far deeper corruption – a political movement and party for which quaint notions such as “duty”, “statesmanship” and even “patriotism”, have no value beyond their use as rhetorical devices. To these so-called conservatives (so-called, because to true conservatives the idea of a mob led by poorly-educated radicals is anathema) the public square is a big scrum, top dogs eat first, and devil take the hindmost. Leaders have no moral obligation as stewards of the government, nor to advance the interests of the nation, nor to serve as anything more than a mechanism to sop up the passions of the mob and to provide a means for the strongest to advance their fortunes.

Stupid Sarah

As described above, Stupid Sarah is a true believer, devoid of guile & passionately committed to her cause. Just a good-hearted person doing The Lord’s work. And while we may not like her political views, she comes by them honestly and deserves to be admired as a happy warrior for a legitimate cause. She may have a somewhat defective grasp on the facts, and her style may strike one as adolescent and rebellious, but all of that counts for less than the fact that she’s true-blue and authentic. Her biggest crime – if it is indeed a crime – is in not recognizing that a gift for connecting with an audience doesn’t necessarily qualify her for a place on the world stage. And she’s to be forgiven for this – it’s a fairly common character flaw afflicting people who live in a world in which the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich (or, if you prefer, John Boehner and Michelle Bachman) count as legitimate authority figures.

So, what’s the relevance of the distinction? Aren’t both equally toxic? In the short-term, they probably are. But over the long haul, Stupid Sarah undoubtedly poses a greater threat to our society and system of government. For while ES can certainly do a lot of damage, the saving grace of evil is that, except in the most extreme cases, it tends to be self-limiting. It’s in the nature of evil to overplay its hand, and certainly in the nature those who seek only to serve their own narrow self-interest to become less radical as they become more successful and have more to lose. So ES could be expected to enjoy her day in the sun but at some point either overplay her hand or take her winnings and go home.

SS, on the other hand, is threatening in two distinct, difficult-to-defeat ways. The first is that stupidity tends to be much more persistent than mere evil. One fights mere greed by cutting off avenues of self-interest or if necessary, finding a way to buy them off. Those tactics don’t work so well with people cut from ‘stupid-but-sincere’ cloth. They’re used to the shit end of the stick, and the harder you smack them with it the more vigorously they pursue their cause. In addition, there are tens of millions of ignorant, intellectually-challenged people in this country. Denied the pipe dream of “good folks win in the end”, they tend to be quite angry. And there’s nothing that motivates them more than having one of their own as a charismatic leader. It validates their fervent need to get back at the “smart kids” who so enraged and humiliated them until they finally managed to escape the educational system. (Dubya, anyone?) Those people would always rather fight than switch, and if she really is among their number she’s less likely to blow it, or to take her stash and retire to whatever slice of white-trash heaven strikes her fancy. Which is to say that she can be expected to hang in there over the long haul, and to metastasize throughout the body politic without constraint.

The second threat from SS is her potential to –  as in the ‘Broadcast News’ quote referenced above – not just briefly test, but actually establish a new low in standards for what passes as patriotism in this country.

Recall that most of the more divisive social issues which have inflamed passions in recent history (think abortion and civil rights of various sorts) pitted the deeply-held beliefs of one group against the enfranchisement of another. The animus on the right was towards efforts by the government to challenge orthodoxies with which many of them were comfortable. But nobody believes that the current system of financing healthcare is sustainable; the recent healthcare free-for-all was caused by an effort to make a first step in solving a problem that everyone agrees is real and pressing. Unlike earlier pitched battles, the Tea Party types weren’t defending personal prerogatives such their religious views or their practice of disliking certain types of people. Nor were they agitating for some alternative policy prescription (None was offered!) They were, rather, objecting to the very act of solving a pressing national problem, that threatens the health and stability of every American. And yet still we saw a crowd of hateful troglodytes reacting as though Obama had arrived at the front door with a bunch of Green Berets intent on selling their daughters into slavery. This truly pushes the bounds.

What’s most deeply frightening is that they did all of this under some deranged notion of patriotism. The meme is that America’s fall from some imagined-greatness results from an effort to get real and solve urgent problems – Reaganism raised to a fetish. This is Stupid Sarah in its most concentrated and virulent form.

The Peril

How can Democracy possibly work when every effort to create policy encounters a crowd of pitchfork-wielding peasants whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic leader who so successfully transmutes fear into hatred? The answer to that question is that it can’t. And although there’s no shortage ways to imagine a decline of the American Century, this particular one is an ominous prospect for those of us who took Ms. Sargent’s Modern European History course back in high school (for the rest of you: think Germany in the 1930’s).

It’s one thing to have to deal with a reluctant prodigal son such as Dubya, or a gang of blithering idiots like most of the rest of the Republican cabal currently on the political scene. It’s quite another to deal with an intellectually-challenged but highly-charismatic true believer who buys her own bullshit and digs being the new messiah.

The danger is that this force is only starting to gather steam, and that SS will organize a heretofore (thankfully!) disenfranchised chunk of the electorate into a major political force. If that happens, SS will permanently warp our society, and fatally undermine our ability to deal with the legitimate challenges facing the nation.

So, as bizarre as it seems, we should all be rooting for Evil Sarah. Give her her pound of flesh and hope that, like Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin before her, she takes enough rope to hang herself. Because if what we’re truly dealing with is Stupid Sarah, the US is on its way to becoming ungovernable, and we’re in for a long, immensely painful descent into idiocracy.

* For more on this style of toxic form of theocratic elitism, check out ‘The Family’; scroll down to the section titled ‘Controversial Leadership Model’

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Al Stefan permalink
    April 14, 2010 10:07 am

    Genius! My only complaint is that you speak down to the value of cynicism. Cynicism en masse may be the best antidote to beating through the thick skulls of the ignorant in this country. Its working for Jon Stewart and Colbert. The volume needs to be turned up.

  2. Liz S-F permalink
    April 14, 2010 12:54 pm

    Sarah Palin’s biggest crime, in my opinion, is that she is a public figure who puts her self interest before everything else. Sure, all politicians do to a certain extent, one has to in in order to be successful, but she takes it to a WHOLE other level, imagining that cartoons and off-the-cuff remarks are slurs against her and her family. In the end I believe this will be her downfall.
    You’ve heard that payback’s a bitch, right? Well, hubris is a bitch with her period ready to grab Sarah Palin by her too-perfect hair and drag her to hell where she belongs!
    (Can you tell that every word out of that woman’s mouth pisses me off?)

  3. April 14, 2010 1:00 pm

    Holy Moly! Can that really be my little HS/college friend Lizzie talking such high-caliber trash?!?? She was such a good girl back in the day… 🙂 And now here you are, goin’ all Sigourney Weaver on Palin…!


    • Liz S-F permalink
      April 14, 2010 7:19 pm

      To clarify in a non-partisan way, hubris brought down John Edwards. Not just because of the affair, a lot of people have affairs and, IMHO, a long-term relationship is more than the sum of its parts. It can’t be destroyed by a quicky mistake on the campain trail. But denying your children is just wrong. And expecting that this won’t effect your political campaign is unbearably insane. Although I have to say that I agree with everything Edwards stood for politically.
      In contrast, disagree with EVERYTHING Mike Hukabee says; however, I believe he is sincere. I believe that he does what he does in the name of citizenship and leadership, not because of self-agrandisement, like Palin.
      Yeah, the good girl your remember is no more…but was she ever REALLY there???

  4. April 17, 2010 2:45 pm

    Insightful… Clear as the nose on my face… methinks there may not be an SS or ES Palin, but some odd mix, a combination (conflagration?) of the two. I won’t venture to guess what percentage of ea. Oh to see this entry on Sarah in editorial pages of every US newspaper, but then does the majority of her audience read? Good work.

  5. April 18, 2010 7:32 am

    ala Lenin (politics is warfare by other means), take someone with an opposing view, give two choices (both bad) describing people that you do not want to debate but wish to “wipe their existance from the face of the earth” and then proceed to shoot both definitions full of hole. Simple as Sarah I say! Laughable. There are many choices here that aren’t as convenient. Sarah was the local civil servant who had gone as far as she should and the American marketing machine got a hold of her. Unfortunate for the masters of the label (American progressives or NON-Liberals as I call them). This isn’t a convenient definition because it may admit that 1. she ever could have had good intentions 2. She followed the Peter Principle as most of us do and rose to the level of her own incompetence. 3. It allows for her humanity which for those who are the great demonizers of “those nutty right wangers”. How about this, Obama is the essence of Chicago mobster turned legit by a power machine? I’ve put as much thought into that as you’ve placed into this essay…equally pointless exercise.

  6. Andrew P permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:40 pm

    Great thoughts, Adam. But though my skin crawls whenever I hear her shrill voice, I’m less concerned that a Sarah Palin exists than I am that enough Americans believe her blather that she can become as powerful a figure as she has. I’d imagine that, by and large, these Americans believe that Obama was born in Africa, is a devout (but secret) Muslim, and just signed death panels into law. They believe both Evolution and Global Warming are leftist farces. They believe immigration was great when it brought their poor white ancestors to America but now believe it is ruinous as it brings in mostly poor non-whites. They believe that their religious myths are obviously better than anyone else’s religious myths. They believe that America’s best future is somehow a return to some non-existent, golden, glorified past. And all these beliefs make them angry, and all their anger makes them politically active.

    You asked how can such a democracy work? I think the only answer is improved education for all. Better education inevitably brings more logical thinking, more tolerance, and more understanding of the real and diverse world around us. This is why both sides focus so much on education as a battleground. Democrats want more higher education for all while Republicans distrust our “ivory towers”. No surprise. And the fact that Texas is rewriting national grade school textbooks in order to rewrite history from a more conservative bent is the scariest thing I’ve heard about it in years. As far as I’m concerned, the more federal control of public education, the better. The more state control, the more we’ll end up with conservative christian madrassas littering our country and infecting children’s minds.

    Some wise old thinker once said that most people will never change their minds. So the only time when one philosophy will win out over another is when the proponents of one philosophy die out (whether through natural causes or man-made causes). But as long as children are indoctrinated with toxic, ignorant conservative thinking, the movement will never die and Sarah Palins will continue to thrive. Always remember that “children are our future”. Nothing is more true, and sometimes, nothing is more frightening.

  7. April 18, 2010 1:06 pm

    Thanks, Andrew. I agree wholeheartedly that there’s a substantial difference between what passes for thought on the different sides of the aisle. Colbert sums it up nicely with his notion of ‘truthiness’.

    With regard to education: part of the problem is that ~ 30 years ago the Republicans successfully conflated a decrease in standardized test scores with the teaching of such “soft” (i.e. humanizing) subjects as humanities & the arts, which happened to be the more civilizing and enlightening disciplines. (As an aside, there was a clear tautology at work — the tests were inherently much better at gauging easily-measurable subjects such as math & science than the humanities, so of course diverting resources towards them pushed the numbers. A clear case of false precision). They of course found natural allies in the Christian Right, who were more than happy to remove what they saw as a competitor in the turf war for hears and minds (well, hearts, at least).

    However, I think that in addition to formal education one also has to take into account some of the other things which have materially altered how children are raised. One is the impact of wealth — the wealthier a family is the more distracting activities it can afford to buy in our heavily media-saturated society. TV, cable, video games, the web, etc….all things which divert attention from studying. The need for families to have two incomes is also a big factor — less stability, less family cohesion, a weaker context in which to influence children to focus. And, to be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that the penchant for divorce that accompanied the loosening of social constrictions also played a role. Lastly, one of the paradoxes of wealth is that it results in there being fewer obvious problems to solve (so less inspiring goals to which to aspire) and, related to that, a higher/more intimidating standard for success (which engenders fear and insecurity from a very young age). Both of those dynamics materially affect motivation and self-confidence, and contribute to a decline in the motivation to become educated. Generally speaking, it’s just more likely that a given kid will fail to get a meaningful education.

    So I don’t disagree at all that the problem lies in our failure to educate our children to be better citizens. But I do think that there are social forces with which we’re going to have to wrestle in tandem with just teaching them. I think we need to re-think the criteria for what it means to be “educated”, and for the definition of a “good life.” The solution starts with people on our side making some noise so we can frame the debate around meaningful issues rather than bullshit.

    • Andrew P permalink
      April 21, 2010 8:19 am

      Great points. When higher education isn’t hungered for by wealthy children or conservative religious children or otherwise content children, it does present a dilemma. How long can we prosper as a nation if it’s immigrants and the poor who most value higher education?

      To me, being “educated” means being exposed to as many different worldwide perspectives, schools of thought, and histories as possible. Perhaps I’m biased by my own experience, but I think that such education can’t help but make you more liberal and progressive in outlook. (I’m sure some right-wingers would find a way to label this sort of education as socialist brainwashing. They’re the ones for whom such expansive, open-minded education is no longer possible due to long-held narrow beliefs.)

      So now the big question: How do we get America’s children to want to receive such an education? Wish I had an answer…

      • Peter permalink
        April 23, 2010 6:19 pm


        No need for me to make any contribution here other than to echo and support every one of your comments above. Education in its broadest sense is surely key to the answer, but I sense a narrowing, a shuttering of the windows of the mind across so much of this country. “The Greatest Generation”, many of them anyway, were post-war immigrants who wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity and the promise of America. The next “Greatest Generation” shows every sign once again of being made up of new immigrants, while the “natives” retreat to the comfort of their favored myths. No wonder there is so much fear on the immigration topic, but the bigger fear is the complacency, close-mindedness and jingoism of some of those who are already here.

  8. April 23, 2010 5:25 pm

    [They were, rather, objecting to the very act of solving a pressing national problem, that threatens the health and stability of every American. And yet still we saw a crowd of hateful troglodytes reacting as though Obama had arrived at the front door with a bunch of Green Berets intent on selling their daughters into slavery. This truly pushes the bounds.]

    A superb articulation – I think you and The Center Square have gotten inside my head to express my thoughts more succinctly than I do.

    On the subject of our ‘dumbing down’ and the concurrent loss of civic values, I think the news media bear a great deal of the blame. They stopped making their essential contribution around the time of O.J., when they discovered there was ‘gold’ in nonsense and endless coverage of a single story.

    Before cable, the networks took their responsibilities seriously, as did CNN in the early years.

    Now, cable and talk radio reinforce our biases and the emerging tribal beliefs and give air time to the loudest voices, even when they’ve nothing to contribute to the national dialogue.

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