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.