One personal benefit of the Bush years is that I’ve become increasingly less cynical about politics. I now view political fights as both substantive and vitally important. I also believe (in a reversal since Iraq) that voters will generally act rationally assuming the press informs them what’s going on. Indeed, most of you probably feel this way too — if you didn’t think ideas and arguments actually mattered, why bother reading or commenting?
But Palin’s rise to fame has jarred me a bit. In fact, it’s bringing out my cynical side and reminding me of March 2003.
Looking back, the really scary part of the Iraq War was not the war itself, but how quickly Americans accepted and embraced a top-down war. The public went from never thinking about Iraq in July 2002 to being whipped up in a frenzy by October 2002, with no triggering event like Pearl Harbor in between (yes, 9/11 was in the background, but it wasn’t a direct trigger for war).
It was a pure top-down war — a pure vanguard movement in the Leninist sense. The administration decided on war, and proceeded to sell the public on it largely on the basis of a savvy media campaign. The war was troubling enough, but the public’s willingness to be manipulated — Julius Caesar style — was borderline terrifying. If we could be persuaded to march off to Iraq in that manner, what else could we be persuaded to do if, say, terrorists attacked again?
Love her or hate her, Palin’s rapid ascent has some eerie parallels. And to be clear, these criticisms have nothing to do with Palin individually, or her views or ideology. She may be a dud, or she may be the next Abraham Lincoln. The point is that no one knows.
What’s troubling then is not so much her, but the way in which both the conservative base and apparently a decent chunk of swing voters have embraced her on the basis of essentially nothing but media images and prepared speeches. It’s surface politics gone wild.
99.9% of the American public has known Palin for approximately two weeks. Her great moment was a prepared speech written by someone else. Even though people know very little about her, that's not stopping them from projecting their own policy preferences upon her.
In any event, her choice has clearly rejuvenated conservatives and helped McCain enjoy a nice convention bounce. I try to resist the idea that politics is all surface and no substance — but Sarah Palin (at this point) is surface incarnate. [By the way, who exactly are these people that change their minds based on a convention? That's another post I suppose, but still disturbing.]
All that said, she may grow into something else — maybe greatness even. But the evidentiary basis for the current enthusiasm is not just flimsy, it’s downright disturbing. It’s enough to make you cynical about what politics is really about — is it about big things, or is it really all about Steve Schmidt-style small things?
The objection of course is what about Obama? Isn’t he all surface? Didn’t he come to power with a speech? The answer is no. He became famous with a speech, sure. And if Democrats had supported him for Vice President in 2004 on the basis of that speech, they would have needed a collective head examination. That’s not a knock on Obama — it’s just that people would have lacked a rational basis for elevating this person so high so quickly on the basis of so little.
Obama isn’t the nominee because of that speech. He’s the nominee because he was tested over the course of a grueling 2 year campaign that took out the Clinton political team. He’s also been a Senator in that time, and has showed an almost eerily efficient managerial competence under extremely high stress. Even with all that, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to ask, “but how do I know?” That’s always been Obama’s central challenge, and it will remain so from now until Election Day.
But in this respect, Palin isn't even in Obama's ballpark -- she's completely unknown. Maybe she will pass these tests one day — maybe she’ll go on to be the greatest American President in history. But right now, people are going wild about her largely on the basis of projection, media images, and a speech. That she could be embraced so widely and so passionately in such a short amount of time makes you wonder about how sturdy the foundations of our democratic process are. Maybe it really is Britney and Paris all the way down.