Or was there no tragedy of Sarah Palin?

Unlike rightwing ideologues (here’s one candidate for the title) who have attacked Joshua Green’s “Tragedy of Sarah Palin” for being non-rightwing-ideological, Andrew Sullivan takes the equally entirely predictable position that Green was too kind to the once-upon-a-time Thrilla from Wasilla.  Before I address Sullivan’s argument directly, however, I want to note a very un-Sullivanish mistake in the third sentence of his concluding paragraph:

The only consistent thing about her is not bipartisan reformism, but a will to power, fueled by resentment of whomever foiled her last.

It should be “whoever,” of course, as the subject of the verbal phrase “foiled her last,” which in its entirety stands as the object of the preposition.  The error may be corrected at any moment, but it’s interesting to me because it’s a completely atypical error for Sullivan, yet a common one for Palin:  I’ve heard her do it several times.  It’s a classic auto-didact wanna-be’s mistake.

The point is not that Sullivan clearly has Palin on the brain.  It’s that something about her has always gotten to his brain.  In its own trivial way, Sullivan’s un-grammatical Palinism demonstrates how the combatant may take on qualities of the enemy unconsciously in the process of objectifying her – not just grammatically, but in the same way that he (rightly) accuses her of objectifying her own enemies.

It’s therefore also natural and predictable that Sullivan will take the issue  Green raises to be completely settled, and not worth raising at all, but that attitude amounts to a betrayal – a self-betrayal on Sullivan’s part and a betrayal of the position he wants to defend and the politics he wants to promote.  To treat one’s political adversaries as fellow human beings rather than as objects always means to treat them as capable of responding to reason and of realizing their better selves.  To declare them unsalvageable may seem realistic, but it’s not democratic and republican.  It’s the end of democratic-republican politics, and the beginning of politics as mere (will-to-) power struggle.

I don’t claim to know the truth of Sarah Palin’s character, but I do think that Green captures a lost Palin moment, the appeal and apparent potential of the Palin idea – a possibility or perhaps only a seeming possibility that seized the imaginations of many well-meaning, mostly non-crazy conservatives when McCain chose her as his running mate.  Since Sullivan at the time of her selection was already fully committed to a different moment and a different idea, what Palin seemed to promise may always have struck him as as a threat and nothing else.  To whatever extent he may have seen what others thought they saw, it could only have struck him as a misappropriation.

The same question that applies to Palin applies to the conservative movement as a whole:  Was it, American conservatism, always this way, its essence having been revealed in our time by events, or have events changed it?  The answer must be both, but, if so, then it goes for particular conservatives as well.  It could be that everything once said in Palin’s favor was a lie, but we cannot know what Sarah Palin would find it possible to be if a different conservatism, the same one that some of us wanted to see in her, and that Sullivan still claims to seek, was our conservatism.  The political process and our national political environment seem to have confirmed much of what Palin’s strongest detractors initially had to say against her, but, even if she was always what she now seems to be, and not a relatively un-formed political character whose highest potential was aborted and whose worst tendencies were encouraged, Green still evokes a sense of what it costs us to rely on the conservatism that we really have, and he at the same time traces the outlines of a better alternative.


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8 comments on “Or was there no tragedy of Sarah Palin?

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  1. At the time of her selection as VP candidate, I thought the prevailing response was desperation – either that she be the Idea or that she be the negation of the Idea.

    Certainly desperation was one of the defining emotions of the McCain candidacy. Since the view inside desperation is that there are no good choices, poor choices tend to occur more frequently. If in fact one makes a good choice, most of the time that will become clear only after the mama grizzly has flown.

    SP and conservatives in general have not shaken off that air of desperation, and I think that has been the obstacle to realizing more positive potentials.

  2. @ bob:
    I think you’re partly right, but I think it’s unfair to McCain. If he was or became desperate, it was because he was desperate to escape the situation of being the Republican conservative candidate of 2008, up against Hopenchange. Compared to the average conservative bear, he had historically represented the “traitor” actually willing to work with the other team and buck the base, in favor of a hopeful, self-consciously “progressive” (and even “Progressive”) vision and tradition. His hero was TR, not RWR. He even from time to time cited his willingness to defy RWR during RWR’s presidency, as for instance on the Lebanon deployment.

    Outwardly, Palin represented a conservative synthesis – non-/bipartisan for the sake of getting things done, open to representatives of the working class, modern, non-sexist, frontier-ready, and so on. It’s hard to remember the image of Palin before she was nationally re-imagined, but it was, I think, post-modern, post-partisan, even technocratic, not antediluvian reactionary. And we really didn’t know for sure just how incoherent and irresponsible she was. I thought maybe she had some bad verbal habits exacerbated by the pressure of the campaign, and had been willing to defer to the McCain team’s judgment. I now think it’s a very good thing that a majority of average voters are smarter than I am.

  3. @ CK MacLeod:

    I was thinking of desperation as an experience, factoring out the particulars for getting to that point. So for the purposes of my point at least, why McCain was desperate doesn’t matter.

    SP just wasn’t ready for the bigs, but once tasting gay Paree couldn’t go home again, kinda left in can’t dance too wet to plow limbo desperate to kick the shit off her boots, but unable to find the right horse to sail out of the barn.

  4. This administration was funded in part by all the parties to the subprime crisis, from AIG to Countrywide to Washington Mutual, all of them have gotten away with barely a slap on the wrist, and then there is the opera buffe with BP, which apparently can’t compare with the siloviki’s main men, on the Arctic plain,

    It is the ‘crook’s paradise’, much like the crony capitalists that Palin fought in her own state, THen again in your own California, you have the spectacle of the LT. Gov, who opposes offshore drilling, yet had personal holdings in Trans Ocean, and who’s family was staked by the Getty’s in some overseas oil leases

  5. @ miguel cervantes:
    friend, those folks were fed at the same trough after Reagan loosed them. they flat-out stole anything not nailed down then (and the Reaganites made sure that not much was nailed) only a few of the more dumb ones ever got their wrists slapped.
    the mistake was letting the Bushers allow a repeat feeding for the fat animals and another fleecing for the rest of the herd.

  6. miguel cervantes wrote:

    LT. Gov, who opposes offshore drilling, yet had personal holdings in Trans Ocean, and who’s family was staked by the Getty’s in some overseas oil leases

    You make it sound like he was Armand Hammer. He owned a mutual fund, IIRC. “Personal holdings…” Sheez.

    “This administration was funded in part by all the parties to the subprime crisis…” As ever, the speck in your political enemy’s eye signifies everything to you. That your political friends are up to their eyeballs in the same stuff and worse never seems to matter or register. Here’s a newsflash: We were all parties to the subprime crisis. Even in the narrowest and not necessarily most informative sense – deregulation of the derivatives market and the role of GSEs – it was bi-partisan. More deregulation and tax cuts. That’ll show ’em.

    And that’s the problem. The “tragedy” or “tragicomedy” of Sarah Palin is that once upon a time she seemed to represent “clean,” if nothing else, and now she represents rightwing reactionary radio reality-show resentment Republicanism.

  7. not buying that , miggs. she certainly got smacked around by the press when she proved not to be a polished professional candidate, but she’s since avoided the press and managed to prove she’s a jackass all by herself, not needing the press’s help.

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