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Elitism Done (By The) Right

What the conservative critics of Sarah Palin get wrong.

It’s official: You’re allowed to disparage Sarah Palin because she “does not have a repertoire of historic patterns” or “the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight.”

But it is absolutely forbidden to question her qualifications on the grounds that “she has never summered in Tuscany.”

So declares David Brooks, the latest conservative to snipe at the GOP vice presidential nominee. To hear Brooks tell it, Palin deserves skepticism because she lacks the quality of “prudence” that can only be acquired “through personal involvement or the study of history.” But, also according to Brooks, a scurrilous population of “people who’ve never been in a Wal-Mart” are simply deriding the Alaska governor because of her shocking record of non-Tuscan holidays. As I don’t actually know any American voters who have never managed to set foot inside so much as one single outpost of the nation’s dominant retail chain, I’ll take Brooks’ word for it when it comes to representing their outrageous views regarding Italian travel and its centrality to the vice presidency.

Still, in right-wing circles, it’s an article of faith that Palin has been set upon by smug coastal liberals aghast at her thin CV and her lack of worldliness. The conviction helped infuse the Republican Convention with an air of aggrieved malice--directed at the press, the Ivy League, and various unnamed cosmopolitans--that also helped spur a post-convention bounce for John McCain.

It’s a familiar gambit for Republicans, and an historically successful one. But it’s making life a lot harder for the “maverick” conservative critics of the Palin nomination--particularly since their main complaints revolve around her … thin CV and lack of worldliness. For Brooks and a handful of colleagues, what’s most worrisome about Palin is a dearth of the sorts of qualities that standard-issue Republicans most mock in Democrats: Long experience in the complex business of government at home, and jet-setting global exposure abroad.

But given modern society’s--and especially the modern GOP’s--knack for blurring the line between the (good) elitism of rigorous standards and the (bad) elitism of snobbery and style, these conservative critics are creating some strained argumentative devices, most notably Brooks’ Tuscanophilic straw man. Call it a culture-wars version of triangulation: a little anti-elitist red meat, then a stuffy declaration that Palin’s not quite substantial enough for the job.

Take Charles Krauthammer, who clears his throat like an English boarding-school headmaster as he questions “the paucity of any Palin record or expressed conviction on the major issues of our time.” It’s not that Krauthammer objects to any particular stance she may have. Rather, it’s that--like most ordinary people, but unlike most members of the globetrotting class--she’s never publicly expressed them, either in her professional life or even via some demonstrated intellectual engagement. Then, naturally, Krauthammer softens the blow with a little bit of Dem-bashing. He’s quick to note that the reliance on star-power only serves to make the Palin phenomenon akin to Obama’s own candidacy. It’s personality-based candidacies, not establishment credentials, that are objectionable. A pity no one told the rhetoriticians of the Republican Convention.

Other conservative doubters have reached the same credentialist conclusions. David Frum writes that Palin’s “experience in government makes Barack Obama look like George C. Marshall,” making sure to note the 9,000-person population of the puny town she led. “So this is the future of the Republican party you are looking at,” he concludes. “A future in which national security has bumped down the list of priorities behind abortion politics, gender politics, and energy politics.” Again, there’s no reason to think Palin would turn out not to uphold steadfastly conservative foreign policy views in office. It’s just that she’s never been in the sort of job--an ambassadorship, perhaps? An internship at the European Parliament?--where she could talk more about foreign affairs than energy politics. This, clearly, is elitism--of the most meritocratic, least culturally judgmental variety. It's nice to have a few Republicans recognize that such a position isn't mere snobbishness.

More hopeful Palin critics are crossing their fingers that she’ll grow into her role. “Let's not be patronizing,” Rich Lowry wrote after Palin’s interview with Charles Gibson. “I believe the truly pro-Palin position is to think she can, should, and will do better than this.” Said Ross Douthat of the same interview: “There's no way to look at her performance as anything save supporting evidence for the non-hysterical critique of her candidacy--that it’s just too much, too soon.” But it’s worth asking what, exactly, these bright folks think will help her do better, or hasten the day when a national candidacy is not in fact “too much.” The answer is obvious: exposure to the worldly people, issues, and institutions of Washington and the world beyond it. As understated as the arguments may be, it’s nice to see some conservatives embracing it.

So here’s a little thought experiment: What if Palin did summer in Tuscany?

In this alternative universe, everything else about her would be the same: The evangelical religion, the moose-hunting, the enthusiastic hockey-mom style, the Wasilla political career, the absence of foreign policy history, the staunch conservatism, the unusually-named kids, the pregnant daughter, the passionate attacks on the old boy network. But, for whatever reason, this daughter of Alaska had for the past two decades spent a chunk of each summer in some pretty little villa on some picturesque hillside soaking up the good life like Diane Lane.

The campaign, like all campaigns, would spin the experience for all it was worth: There’d be assertions about how the stratifications of old Europe made her appreciate the wide-open social mobility of America’s last frontier, cute anecdotes about how Palin’s bilingual rapport with her Italian neighbors showcases her native diplomatic skills, impressed observations about how her time rubbing Euro-elbows hadn’t caused her to give up her American-style views on social policy or the free market. Appealing stuff, all of it.

That sort of spin would never affect Palin’s veritably Burkean critics on the right, would it? After all, they’re not snobs like all those liberals. They only worry about experience and prudence and wisdom. Alas, I’ve got a hunch our Tuscan Alaskan might have an easier time with these folks than the Italy-free version currently on the hustings. But then again, I’ve been to Wal-Mart, so what would I know.

Michael Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.