by Anthony Williams
Much derision has been heaped on Governor Sarah Palin since she accepted John McCain’s invitation to run for vice president, from the right and the left, but I think both sides make too much of her mistakes and underestimate her strengths. I think both see that her public persona isn’t very polished, and this leads to all the rest of their conclusions. She speaks frankly, without dissembling, and on some subjects she is not well versed. Unlike most politicians, she lacks the ability to discuss subjects on which she is ignorant as though she were not. The left sees this as evidence that she is stupid, a mere yokel from a backwater state. The right sees this as evidence that she is an embarrassment to them, a populist yokel from a backwater state, not to be trusted with the mighty work of saving the republic.
I don’t think she is stupid, and I don’t think she is a yokel (full disclosure: I grew up in Alaska, living there from 1987-1997, but I knew nothing of Sarah Palin before the 2008 presidential campaign). Conservatives are right to think she is something of a populist; where I think they are wrong is to think that she is an embarrassment to the conservative movement.
Governor Palin is wildly popular with politically dissatisfied Americans. These Americans are not traditional conservatives or liberals, nor are they traditional independents. Rather they come from all across the political spectrum and are united in a belief that government has become too big, too incompetent, too corrupt, and too permanent. To this group, Palin represents a politician who is on their side, unlike the long-serving Republicans and Democrats. Instead of a choice between a corrupt conservative or a corrupt liberal, they see Palin as a chance for real change.
They aren’t just projecting their own hopes onto her: Palin’s political record in Alaska was as she described it: a hockey mom who became a small-town mayor and then made the jump to Governor and made great progress in cleaning up the corruption in the Alaskan Republican Party. Since then, her plain talk has confirmed her persona: she remains a non-politician on the political stage. The fact that her speaking style is unpolished and that she sometimes speaks despite a lack of information is actually a strength: despite her years in politics, she is still one of the people, trying to get the professional politicians to do our will.
I do not underestimate her problems as a politician: as President she would likely struggle mightily, and it would not surprise me at all if she endorsed poorly-planned policies in areas outside of her experience. I think her value to the conservative movement is from outside the political arena: she can use her popularity to channel enthusiasm, money, and media attention towards conservative candidates who are not merely standard Republicans, but instead are committed to conservative principles of virtue and small government. This is essentially what she did in 2010 with the tea party candidates that she backed. I don’t know if she and they can succeed in shrinking government. But I think they have a good chance, and even conservatives who think she is an embarrassment should support her efforts.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Anthony, not to be confused with our other contributor, Tony Williams, is a graduate of Hillsdale College. He is currently also, much to my happiness, one of my wonderful colleagues at the college. A native Alaskan, a father, husband, and an expert on all things technological and Lego-esque, Anthony has graciously agreed to defend Palin from a conservative viewpoint.