Saturday, September 06, 2008
An Exchange on Elitism
Reader Eric Hosemann writes; my replies inserted in bold.
On hearing news of the Palin pick I sent you my top ten list of her positive attributes, and said this in conclusion:
"Take heart! Whatever happens, Palin's quality of character and authentic good-nature shine through. She is the real—and positive—embodiment of W.F.B.'s phonebook principal. This is our time!"
In the Corner today, Mark Steyn refererred to Roger Kimball's brilliant articulation of this idea. If I may say so, I feel especially proud to be in such company.
I wonder though. Buckley was a deeply principled conservative perceived and portrayed by the media as a wealthy elitist. The volume and quality of his output and his generous personality suggest otherwise. Many years ago, my father sent a letter of praise to WFB for being an inspiration to midwest conservatives. He received a hand-written response— not something an elitist would do. You are similarly blessed with the patience and good nature necessary to consider a flood of reader emails.
I know your misgivings about Palin are well-grounded in your intellect and experience, but I am curious about your willingness to entertain the thoughts of your readers. Do you condescend in doing so, or are you genuinely interested? I am absolutely sure the latter is correct, but if so, why is Palin such a difficult pill for you to swallow? What makes her conservatism any different than ours?
** The most important difference: I value executive skill more than most conservatives do I think. Some NRO readers seem to imagine it's just a matter of having the right convictions and sticking by them. I think it is way more complicated than that. A good executive requires convictions yes. And backbone agreed. But a good executive needs a solid floor of background knowledge so that he / she can sift sense from nonsense in policy proposals. A good executive must be willing to listen to a wide range of views, including some that are not immediately acceptable. A good executive must have a sense of timing: avoiding the equal evils of haste and procrastination. A good executive must have the power to explain and defend his / her actions to a wide variety of audiences, from the largest to the most specialized.
As an elitist (And trust me, having taken your writings on literature to heart, you're an elitist— but totally in the good, Allan Bloom sort of way...) you understand the necessity of refinement in intellect, art and politics. But what of the ore? What of the raw material that shows itself amenable to refinement by pursuing an education, or a career in representative government? Are we to dismiss it outright unless it sprouts directly from the Ivy League, portfolio in hand?
** Did I say anything about the Ivy League? I don't think academic credentials matter at all in the presidency. (Unlike eg the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve.) I even believe that there is rapidly diminishing marginal utility for IQ. Clinton was surely smarter than FDR, Nixon smarter than Reagan, Adams smarter than Washington. We are talking about a particular set of decision-making skills - and there is NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that Palin possesses them. Worse, from my point of view, is the assumption that because she is a conservative Christian that she therefore has intelligent conservative views on every other subject, from what to do with Fannie Mae to what to do about Iran. That's a greater leap of faith than I can make.
Being gracious and kind to readers doesn't mean you consider them capable of governing the most powerful and productive nation on earth. However, being a well educated member of the intellectual or monied classes doesn't prevent one from making grievous errors of judgment. Our nation's history is splattered with the unintended consequences of decisions made in the corridors of power. George W. Bush is a well educated and wealthy individual, considered by many capable of great feats of leadership. Yet what did he make of Iraq until Petraeus? President Bush relied on the collective experience and intellect of his administration when he declared the Iraq mission accomplished; we now understand the capabilities of Rumsfeld and Bremer (while certainly nothing to be sneered at by knuckle-dragging, working-class conservatives like me) as somewhat lacking when applied to real-time war and nation building. Experience and membership in an elite class are indicators of leadership potential. They are not substitutes for leadership.
** This only confirms my point. George W. Bush had very slight executive experience before becoming president. His views were not well known. He won the nomination exactly in the same way that Palin has won the hearts of so many conservatives: by sending cultural cues to convince them that he was one of them, understood them, sympathized with them. So that made everything else irrelevant in 2000 - as it seems again to be doing in 2008. I do credit George W. Bush with great feats of leadership. In particular, I think his refusal to quit Iraq in 2005-2006 when everybody was urging him to, his insistence on fighting through to success, will be seen as a triumph of strength and conviction that saved the US from potential disaster. But he lacked other important aspects of leadership which is how we got into the mess from which he needed to rescue the country and himself.
I am not so naive as to believe democratic government possible without input from the best and brightest. I know that Bremer and Rumsfeld operate on a level completely foreign to men like me. Nor do I think the insight of Joe Sixpack particularly crucial. I do think Sarah Palin represents the kind of balance between these two extremes appealing to a wide range of voters. McCain and the Republican party would be fools to ignore such a resource.
** Again let me stress: I am not denying that Sarah Palin may have great skills. She may well. I am insisting that neither you, nor I, nor John McCain has any valid reason to believe that she does. This is not an argument about the attributes she lacks. It's an argument about the information we lack. I am pleading with my fellow conservatives: Please demand more and better knowledge before you commit yourselves to a political leader. That's all.
I know, I know. Answering an acolyte's email is completely different from endorsing one for VP. But I think the core principles are the same. I write you an email to engage those better angels that lead me away from the beer in the fridge and towards a book or an article. Sarah Palin became a politician because she knows we have those better angels. You don't have to be a bank executive, community organizer or Ivy Leaguer to know that.
09/06 09:01 AM