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by Anthony Williams

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

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.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Every generation we get a breath of political fresh air or a prairie fire from the West. As talented as she is as a politician, only time will tell whether Sarah Palin will develop into a consequential national leader.

  2. The hatred of the left is perfectly predictable and needs little explanation. She is an unabashed Christian conservative, with an apparently indefatigable positive attitude, and a happy family, who loves America and its founding values. What’s not to hate! But why would certain conservatives want to jump on the hate Sarah bandwagon?

    To me that is the fascinating question, and one I think Anthony gets at least partially right: She is not a professional politician, and has no interest in being perceived as one. She also is doing a "reality" show, which potential presidential candidates just don't do. I love the "What would Reagan do" comparisons, as if there is only one template to become president. Remember, we never had a one term senator become president whose primary resume enhancement was being a "community organizer."

    And there's the issue of her malapropisms, and speaking in Alaskan vernacular. After eight years of the left and the media ridiculing President Bush for his less than stellar verbal skills, the last thing some conservatives want is another easy target. I can certainly sympathize with that.

    I happen to believe she would make a fine president, because she is tough as nails, and I think her instincts are fundamentally conservative and classically liberal. And I think she is wise enough to know what she doesn't know, and would surround herself with smart and capable conservatives. Could she get the nomination? I'm doubtful. But if she does decide to run, I think it would be fun to see if she can turn the skeptics on the right into fans.

  3. I find it difficult to embrace a feminist who enthusiastically praises Title IX and polemicizes against the "glass ceiling." Who had a virtual lovefest with Geraldine Ferraro at Fox News on election night. And that's just for starters. If only Palin were what her supporters and detractors thought she was.

  4. I am just flabbergasted that this folksy, one-of-us image still sticks to someone who quit early for no reason that is apparent to me–except to engage in one long publicity-engendering, tons-of-money-making bonanza.

    I distrust her populism and her populist rhetoric. I don't think she thrives on her "indefatigable positive attitude" so much as her stoking and encouragement of resentment. If populist resentment and anti-intellectualism is fundamentally conservative, I am highly disturbed. I prefer the heritage of Burke, Tocqueville, and Kirk to that of proletarian rabble-rousing.

    I was embarrassed about her areas of ignorance in her vice-presidential interviews, which I'm glad you acknowledge. It didn't and doesn't mean she was or would be a bad governor, but it certainly meant (and continues to mean) she'd be a bad national official. Look, I certainly don't bureaucratization or professionalization of politics, but national office is really difficult and requires, yes, broad knowledge, wisdom, and prudence. I don't want an average joe, one us, just "trying to get the professional politicians to do our will"–certainly not when it comes to dealing with Russia or the EU or North Korea or any other foreign policy issue.

    As for her broad appeal, I have yet to meet a non-Republican who cares for her.

  5. Can you give us an example of her "cleaning up the corruption" in Alaska? It seems to me that she used her office to persecute those with whom she had a private grievance. Is that not corruption?

    Can you give us an example of her "areas of expertise?" I have yet to find one.

    Sarah is an example of somebody who is famous for being famous. Of accomplishments she has few. Her "reality" show is like her "conservatism": something for public consumption. If this is the best conservatives can do, then conservatives can't do much. But my question is this: "Is the distance between a Kirk and a Palin a precise measure of how far conservatism has fallen?"

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