Ross Douthat is reputed to be a pretty smart guy. He blogged for the Atlantic before being given Bill Safire’s old op-ed column at the New York Times. Safire, despite being wrong in may ways, was a sharp observer with good sources in DC, an analytical eye, and a sparkling intellect. Safire was briefly replaced by Bill Kristol, whose uneasy relationship with the truth, sloppy writing, and tendency to bash his own paper led to a brief tenure. Douthat has risen above Kristol’s sad mark, but not by much.
Consider his defense of Sarah Palin:
In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.
That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology.
How does that statistic tell us anything about class? The poll shows 45% of Americans with a favorable view of Palin, statistically identical to the rates among both independents and those without any college experience. To the extent this tells us anything about class in America, it says that class is not a factor in Palin’s unpopularity.
If you want to see the effects of class on popularity, look elsewhere in that poll, at Mitt Romney’s stats. He’s favored by only 33% of those without any college education, and the same number of people earning less than $30,000/year. Those with at least a little college education favor him by 13 more percentage points, a trend also seen in his ratings by income levels, with 41% approval in the $30,000–75,000 group and 48% among those earning more that $75,000. That’s class division. Sarah Palin is disliked by rich and poor alike (AFAICT). Her base is not among poorer Americans, or less educated Americans. Her base is among evangelicals. Pew writes:
positive views of Palin have slipped among non-evangelical Republicans…, they remain overwhelmingly positive among white evangelical Republicans.
Which brings us back to Douthat. Douthat contrasts Palin with Obama, claiming:
Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
Except she doesn’t. She represents some sort of fringe ideal among evangelical Christians. This is a group notable for its anti-intellectualism, with observer (and evangelical Christian) Mark Noll explaining the title of book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Evangelicals have not built the equivalents of Harvard or Columbia. They have not created their own Georgetown or Notre Dame. They created Liberty University, Patrick Henry College, and Bob Jones University: political props for the freakshow that is Republican politics.
Sarah Palin’s success reflects that culture. It doesn’t reflect any grand democratic ideal or any class division. It barely reflects a strain between intellectuals and anti-intellectuals (many of the latter are college-educated, but still, Palin’s ratings among college-educated and college-uneducated are statistically indistinguishable). It reflects evangelical Christianity: a white, female, rural phenomenon with a new white, female, rural standardbearer.