This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.
Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.
I’m sorry, what? “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” or “humble beginnings” or “son of a millworker” or whatever nonsense does not mean “remain mediocre your whole life and get handed the Presidency.” Jackson was a military man. Truman had decades of experience before becoming President. Neither of them winked in a job interview. (Neither of them quit, either.) People love Sarah Palin because until she became McCain’s running mate, she was already a rising star in her own right and a darling of the conservative Christian wing.
I don’t know if Palin herself is to blame for how badly her national debut was mishandled (it’s not like McCain’s team was running an excellent campaign), but the knock on her most certainly wasn’t that she didn’t go to Harvard. Her story is compelling. Everything else wasn’t.
More to the point, the last three Democratic Presidents all fit Douthat’s imagined model. Humble beginnings, check. Working hard using one’s natural gifts, check. Rising to great heights due to a combination of luck and those gifts, check. It’s even true of Reagan.
I realize anti-intellectualism has always run deep in this country, a sort of crazy American blend of believing in education and hard work and the common man who can show up the snob all at the same time. It’s a good crazy, most of the time. But I’m not sure when it became a pillar of contemporary conservative punditry (I won’t say contemporary conservatism, because they send their kids to the Ivies, too, including Douthat) that working hard and succeeding meant that you were suddenly un-American. The Connecticut Yankee wasn’t fancy, but knew what he was talking about.
And you have to wonder if that’s the message they mean to send. Douthat says the message to America from Palin’s experience is “don’t even think about it”, but increasingly the message from the conservative punditry re: Obama, Sotomayor seems to be “don’t succeed.”