A common question pollsters ask during elections is whether a given candidate “understands people like me.” The implication of the question is that if candidates could only understand our situations, they would make policy that took those situations into account. The issue of empathy would never arise, of course, if government policies were widely perceived as addressing the concerns of ordinary people. But in an age when government is commonly felt to be distant from and indifferent to the lives of ordinary American citizens, it should be no surprise to anyone with the slightest amount of sensitivity that empathy among politicians is a potent factor in election campaigns. With wages stagnant since the 1970s in inflation-adjusted dollars; an ever-increasing wage gap between senior managers and their employees; the subprime mortgage meltdown and resulting global economic crisis; a dysfunctional healthcare system; global warming; higher deficits and a growing national debt; crumbling infrastructure and two ongoing wars, it is easy to see why people commonly feel that government is unresponsive to them. No wonder only 9% of the public feels that the nation is headed in the right direction. In fact, it seems miraculous that anyone feels that way at all.
Judging politicians according to their perceived empathy reduces the question of qualification for higher office to one of individual personal qualities and, as such, obscures the broader considerations facing any politician in formulating government policies. For any president will face a bewildering array of issues, many of which will involve considerable abstraction and an ability to absorb, analyze, summarize and respond to large amounts of information very quickly and decisively. Addressing the current economic crisis, for example, requires not only a desire to help people in need, but the ability to discern crucial differences between competing arguments of considerable sophistication as to how to respond. Similarly, choosing a successful path in U.S. foreign policy requires not only emotional responses to events, leaders and their countries, but the ability to determine which among various complex strategies is most likely to achieve objectives beneficial to the United States. The degree of empathy exhibited by a given politician toward various people or groups in the electorate provides little aid in determining the aptitude of said politician for the challenges lying ahead.
That said, it is remarkable that at a moment when we face catastrophe in all directions, one of this country’s two major political parties presents us with a vice presidential candidate with no apparent qualifications for the office she seeks.
The personalization of politics in America has been predicated on individualism, an idea that arose with the Reformation. There is wide agreement among scientists that human development is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Yet many on the right would deny the influence of social factors on individuals altogether. Such foregrounding of the individual renders relations between the individual and society unintelligible. The individual, like a figure against a background, is defined in relation to his or her social context. When that context is obscured, the decontextualized individual is then seen solely as a self-defined entity. American culture is rife with references to the mythological self-made man. Ayn Rand’s John Galt is one melodramatically exaggerated version of that autonomous individual, arrayed against the pernicious mass of men with their threatening mediocrity and government crutches.
Individual outcomes are then explained solely as questions of personal character, in a modern secular echo of one key part of the Puritan ethos. With success or failure reduced to a question of moral character, social context is deemed irrelevant, making action on social problems impossible. Thus we witness Dana Perino informing reporters on 10/9/08 that the Bush administration will not extend unemployment benefits beyond six months because that time period has been deemed by the administration to be suffient for anyone to get a job. Clearly, those still unemployed after six months are doing something wrong. Never mind that the economy has shed 600,000 jobs since the beginning of the year and the economy is grinding to a halt due to the paralysis of the credit markets.
This reduction of all social phenomena to questions of individual moral character dovetails neatly with modern GOP ideology, particularly its libertarian and market fundamentalist strains. The former gives primacy to the individual and regards society as an outgrowth of individual liberty. Similarly, free market absolutists, by focusing on markets to the exclusion of all else, obscure the constitutive role of society in the creation of markets. These ideologies have in common a marginalization of social phenomena outside the sphere of individual liberty and market efficiency, respectively. This reinforces the attitude common within the GOP of reducing social outcomes to questions of individual moral character. After all, if a subject is, within a given circle of discourse, deemed to be off limits, it should be no surprise that people within the circle dismiss that subject when constructing causal explanations. Having narrowed discourse to discussion of individual character, it is all the easier to develop government policies that exclude social spending and instead reward those whose superior material circumstances, according to the accepted discourse, indicates their superior moral character. That neither individual liberty nor modern market economies could have existed in the pre-modern world would suggest that social context plays an important role in the construction of both, but such seems not to have occurred to advocates of libertarianism and free market absolutism. Nor do periodic economic crises, the solutions of which have always depended on governmental intervention in the markets, put a dent in the ideological certainty with which free market ideologues adhere to theoretical consistency at the expense of empirical reality.
The reduction of politics to the personal has been supported as well by an ahistorical recasting of the concept of equality. In the Declaration of Independence, equality was depicted in terms of equality of opportunity. Outcomes were a matter of the individual, context and chance. The notion of merit, which began to be codified with the rise of professionalism in the 19th century, created an elaborate structure by which one could advance through the ranks of various trades, professions and educational institutions. This orderly process for advancement in personal and professional status stood in sharp contrast to the traditional European notion of ascribed status, against which the founders of our country stood in the Declaration. Achieved status offered official sanction to those who passed a series of predefined hurdles; it provided the trades and professions with legitimacy as institutions populated by individuals whose competence had been verified by such advancement. The same notion of achieved status transferred in the Progressive Era to commercial products inspected by the newly formed FDA and other governmental agencies. It is questionable whether the modern pharmaceutical industry, to give one example, could have developed the size and influence it has today had it not been for the intervention by that non-individual, non-market entity, the government, in the development of safety, testing and licensing standards pertaining to medical products.
The rise of the civil rights movement initiated a backlash against government, leading to the replacement of equality of opportunity by a cynical notion of equality of outcomes, resulting in the erosion of the idea of merit as the key to social advancement. Many conservatives have fought the inclusion of women, non-whites and gays in the body politic while accusing liberals of denying equal opportunity to whites via affirmative action. In addition, many on the right claim that liberals have abandoned merit in their selections for tenured university faculty positions on the basis, allegedly, of their politics, while trying to force universities to install conservative academics in tenured positions on the basis of the politics of the latter. This combination reflects a great deal of hypocrisy. Equally obviously, these moves on the right reduce to a power grab. After all, where were conservative voices in opposition to the “affirmative action” of Jim Crow, which gave white people a huge advantage by excluding black people from participation in American society across the board? Regarding “political correctness,” if competent conservative scholars desired to enter academia in greater numbers than is now the case, they would represent a higher percentage of applicants for positions on university faculties than they have. Those who rail against the supposed bias in university hiring overlook the fact that a self-selection process is at work. Complaints about the political orientation of college faculties, like complaints about affirmative action, are based not on prejudicial hiring, but on dislike of observable outcomes. The fact that warriors against supposed politically correct academic hiring want to change the outcomes by changing the rules indicates that rules are not very important to them. Yet without those rules--in other words, with merit tossed aside--there will no longer be a set of standards by which one can determine the qualifications of anyone in academia to teach, write or do research. This is not the position one would expect of staunch defenders of intellectual inquiry.
One of the great recent paradoxes in American politics is the relatively recent transformation of the GOP from a party of unabashed elitism to one asserting support for a faux populism. The Republican Party inherited the Federalist tradition with its mistrust of common people, as embodied in the construction of the Senate and the electoral college. In the late 19th century, elites within the GOP, spurred on by Brooks Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, emulated European elites in seeking to compete with European empires by taking on an imperialist role in the world. GOP economic policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, particularly since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Elitism in the Republican Party has persisted well past William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. But while Buckley himself was a well-educated and cultured man as well as an unapolegetic elitist, a new strain of conservative, embodied in the person of Senator Joseph McCarthy, was slouching toward Washington, waiting to be born politically.
McCarthy’s mode of self-representation consisted of a combination of exaggerated machismo, rank opportunism, manipulation, and blatant bigotry. His modus operandi was guilt by association. Where standards of logic, evidence, sophistication and ethics were concerned, McCarthy had none whatsoever. Despite all this, Buckley defended McCarthy and the elder statesmen of traditional GOP conservatism, such as Senator Robert Taft, found him useful, if repellent, until he became a liability by going after Gen. George C. Marshall and the military. For despite McCarthy’s obvious crudeness, he was, for quite a while, very popular, and his anticommunist crusade enabled the GOP to increase its political power and thus to pursue policies friendly to big business.
Richard Nixon, a considerably more intelligent and sophisticated man than McCarthy, harnessed the same forces of resentment in a more subtle way for use in his quest for and in the exercise of power. Nixon began his career, like McCarthy, with ad hominem attacks on opponents laced with implications of disloyalty. He appealed to ordinary people’s fears of communism, but also with ‘everyman’ symbolism as his Checkers speech and later, appeals to the great silent majority. Most important with reference to long-term social and electoral effects was his Southern Strategy for gaining GOP political dominance of the South, in the aftermath of the Democratic-sponsored Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, via use of subtle appeals to white racism. Like McCarthy, Nixon’s populist appeals masked politics favoring corporate power.
The Southern Strategy would continue to be the blueprint for GOP national electoral victories from 1968 at least until George W. Bush’s national campaign in 2000 (it was used during the South Carolina primary campaign against John McCain that year as well). Lee Atwater followed Nixon’s blueprint in converting the term ‘liberal’ into a pejorative term, appealing to white racism with the Willie Horton ad, and echoing McCarthy with the phrase “card-carrying ACLU member” in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush. Karl Rove similarly used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to demonize political opponents as traitorous, cowardly and weak. As with McCarthy and Nixon, these appeals to the ugly side of populism were accompanied by government policies favoring corporate power and the wealthy.
The division of electoral districts into strictly delineated partisan camps nationwide enabled politicians to craft messages aimed exclusively at their bases, with enabled Rove to run campaigns aimed solely at motivating voter turnout among the GOP base. This enabled further polarization and undiluted appeals to popular resentments. It also fostered an increasing insularity among supporters of each party.
Partly due to increasing political insularity, but also fueled by the implications of the anti-modernist and otherwise irrational strains common within modern conservatism, right wing discourse has increasingly become hostile to evidence and reasoned argument. There is no counterpart on the left, for example, to the bullying, bellowing ignorance of a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, or the contempt for ideas and the asking of questions (on the part of George W. Bush, for example) on the right. One does not hear people at Obama rallies screaming for the deaths of their opponents, but such expressions are often heard (and filmed) at John McCain rallies.
It is into this sociopolitical context that Sarah Palin has thrust herself. With little relevant education, training or experience, she is now a major party candidate for a position as potential replacement for a candidate who, if elected, will be the oldest person in American history to assume the office of President for the first time—and a four-time cancer patient. Through her husband and her own experience, Sarah Palin has direct ties to an extremist political party devoted to the secession of Alaska from the United States. In a now infamous interview with Katie Couric, Palin was unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads. She couldn’t name a single Supreme Court case except Roe v Wade (hostility to abortion rights being her signature issue). She has exhibited an almost pathological compulsion to lie about almost anything she’s asked. She has resurrected the old animosity among western state Republicans against the east coast. Since being nominated as John McCain’s running mate, Palin has used insinuations and guilt by association to depict Barack Obama as crooked, alien and even someone who has been “palling around with terrorists.” In her ignorance, dishonesty, extremist associations and ruthlessness, she fits right into the tradition of right wing populism typified by Joseph McCarthy, Nixon, Westbrook Pegler (whom she quoted in her inauguration speech), and Robert Welch.
Palin wears her lack of qualifications like a badge of honor, declaring proudly her self-appointed status as an outsider who supposedly doesn’t know the ways of Washington D.C. (Never mind that she underwent training to be a right wing political candidate with Newt Gingrich’s organization, GOPAC.) Essentially, Palin’s acceptance of McCain’s offer reflects a deep cynicism about the concept of merit. Anyone can do this job, is her implicit claim. Standards are just mechanisms used by elitists to keep ordinary people from participating as equals in American society. The game is rigged just to keep people like me out. One can hear in this the resentments aroused over 30 years ago in response to affirmative action. From the assumption that anyone gaining entry via affimative action is automatically unqualified to receive it, the next move is to say that if person X can get in without qualifications, so can I. The whole rationale for setting and maintaining standards—the assumption of competence, ethical behavior and prudence embedded in the notion of merit—is thereby swept off the table in favor of a decontextualized notion of equality wherein everyone not only has equal opportunity, but a right to equal outcomes regardless whether one has developed the skills required for a given position or not. That such a notion of equality might introduce an unacceptable level of risk into, say, leading the richest, most powerful country in human history doesn’t seem to have occurred to Palin, McCain or their advisors.
Whether Palin’s choice arose from an astounding solipsism on her part (a distinct possibility, given the insularity implied by her worldview, knowledge level and experiences), total cynicism (certainly this was involved in the decision by McCain and his advisors), or something else, the net result in the short term is the establishment of incompetence as a new standard of merit for public service. Many in the GOP have long considered government to be the enemy; that is essentially the position taken by far right libertarians and anti-tax extremists such as Grover Norquist. I suppose that electing an utter incompetent to high office is one way to protect one’s liberty from encroachment by the government. After all, if government is inherently evil, rendering it ungovernable presumably will protect individual freedom—if it doesn’t destroy the entire country first.
What an irony. An elitist political party, historically aligned with large corporations and the wealthy, and driven by an ideology of individualism and free market absolutism based on Protestant notions of merit, acquiesces in the rise of crude pseudo-populists in its pursuit of power. Having used pseudo-populist appeals to acquire and maintain power, the GOP has mutated into a party dominated by people so extreme that it must promote extremist policies to gain their support, in the course of which it gives voice to a cynical reconceptualization of equality that undermines the ideological framework by which status is attained in American society and in the process puts the entire country at risk.