Ah, meritocracy! Not so long ago, conservatives had a lock on it: no affirmative action, no A’s for effort, no competitions where everyone gets a prize. People who complained that racism or sexism or any other ism was holding them back were whiners looking for excuses. They either didn’t want to work hard or, as Charles Murray claimed in The Bell Curve, they weren’t smart enough to make the grade.
Well, never mind. Sarah Palin has done for meritocracy what she’s done for those other conservative obsessions: working mothers (you go, girl!), teen pregnancy (a challenge!), masculine authority (the first dude?)–to say nothing of gravitas, statesmanship, wisdom and all those other weighty abstract nouns George Will likes to talk about. "I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love," Murray told the New York Times‘s Deborah Solomon. "The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government." Palin is new, young, attractive, charismatic, a natural speaker. She’s a fascinating combination of opposites–relatable (horrible word) and down to earth but also intense and weirdly thrilling–half Rachael Ray, half Boudicca, a warrior mom. Feminist triumph or feminist nightmare? Maybe both! She’s hot in all senses of the word. If she wasn’t a big reactionary, she’d make a fantastic community organizer.
But let’s be real: there is just no way Sarah Palin is equipped to be vice president, much less president. She doesn’t know enough; she lacks the necessary grasp of, and curiosity about, our complex world; her political philosophy could fit on a bumper sticker: Us versus Them. The lack of stamps in her recently acquired passport has been much noted (yes, I know, Bill Kristol, Lincoln was not a big traveler, either); it isn’t even clear she’s well acquainted with the Lower 48. She’s prepping for her debate with Joe Biden like a student jock cramming for a test. The McCain campaign, tacitly acknowledging how out of her depth she’ll be no matter how many all-nighters she pulls, demanded–and, shockingly, got–special modifications to the veep debate format so that there would be no follow-up questions. After all, it wouldn’t be right to expect Palin to compete on normal terms with Joe Biden, who has the totally unfair advantage of being deeply versed in domestic and foreign policy and knowing how the world’s business is done. Lower standards for potential leaders of the world’s most powerful country, in the name of diversity: that’s what Republicans stand for now.
Hillary Clinton said her campaign put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling; Sarah Palin, adding that "the women of America aren’t finished yet"–as if women had stormed the barricades to nominate her–claimed her election would "shatter the glass ceiling once and for all." That’s ridiculous. The glass ceiling is the invisible barrier of gender prejudice that prevents women, as a class, from rising to the level that their qualifications and abilities merit–the level they would reach if they were men. Like her or not, Hillary Clinton was more than equipped to run the United States; her nomination would have been a true glass-ceiling breakthrough. But Palin’s only qualification for the second or, God forbid, the first job in the land is that John McCain thought she’d lend his sagging campaign a shot of estrogen and some right-wing Christian fairy dust.
Whether or not the gambit succeeds, it has nothing to do with recognizing accomplishment, experience or even steady old boring competence. Just ask McCain’s gaffe-prone economic adviser Carly Fiorina, ushered off the stage after she pointed out that Sarah Palin couldn’t run a major corporation; Fiorina, who was fired as CEO of Hewlett Packard after a fairly disastrous tenure, ought to know. Or ask Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Condoleezza Rice, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle or the many other Republican women McCain could have chosen had he cared about governing. As has been known to happen in less exalted workplaces, Palin got the promotion because the boss just liked her. She will do no more to shatter the glass ceiling for other women as a group than such women usually do.
There’s an upside, in that the old attack on Obama as a lightweight who is inexperienced and overreaching has all but vanished. Plus, there’s the fun of watching conservative pundits scramble to deny the obvious. "There are Republicans who are unhappy about John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin," acknowledged William Kristol in his September 1 column. "Many are insiders who highly value–who overly value–‘experience.’" Ah yes, experience. What is that, anyway? My people choose their leaders by inspecting the entrails of chickens, and the gods have always multiplied our herds! Besides, as Rush Limbaugh said recently, "She’ll be surrounded by a sea of advisers." Hmmm, where did I hear that before? Was it not in 2000, when doubts were raised about whether George W. Bush could handle the job?
The stress on high-end conservative pundits is beginning to show. These are people, after all, who belong to the Ivy-educated, latte-drinking, Tuscan-vacationing urban elite they love to ridicule and who see themselves, however deludedly, as policy intellectuals and grown-ups. They’ve written endlessly about "excellence" and "standards." McCain’s erratic flounderings, and Palin’s patent absurdity, have driven David Brooks and George Will to write columns so anguished I’d feel sorry for them had they not made their bed by spending the past eight years rationalizing the obvious inadequacies of George W. Bush.
I want the people running the country to be smarter and wiser and more judicious and more knowledgeable than I am. If that’s elitism, count me in.
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Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, my collection of personal essays, is just out in paperback. Visit kathapollitt.com for ten questions to kick off your book club discussion and for info on how to reach me to get involved.