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Joe Six-Pack goes to Washington

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Wednesday, Oct 1, 2008

3 Quarks Daily linked to an interview with Sarah Palin conducted by conservative Hugh Hewitt. I don’t advise reading the whole thing, unless you want to vomit, but the bit highlighted by 3QD is fairly illustrative of where democracy in America is at:


HH: Governor, your candidacy has ignited extreme hostility, even some hatred on the left and in some parts of the media. Are you surprised? And what do you attribute this reaction to?


SP: Oh, I think they’re just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying you know what? It’s time that normal Joe six-pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency, and I think that that’s kind of taken some people off guard, and they’re out of sorts, and they’re ticked off about it, but it’s motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe six-pack like me, and we start doing those things that are expected of our government, and we get rid of corruption, and we commit to the reform that is not only desired, but is deserved by Americans.



This strikes me as total insanity. I am not sure what it would mean for “normal Joe Six-Pack” to be “represented” in the vice presidency, but I assume it means putting a “regular” person (as opposed to a “career politican”) in the position to illustrate some reality TV-like premise that anyone can be considered fit for governing and that being an executive in charge of one of the largest and most intricate bureaucracies the world has ever seen is just a matter of common sense and Christian values. It is the very essence of the problem with the Bush administration: the idea that competence is a fiction and any Joe Six-Pack can be put in charge and everything will be just fine. Basically, the implication is that the vice presidency, as well as every other leadership position in government, serves an entirely symbolic function. The figureheads in these slots don’t have to have any expertise; they simply need to represent some idea that appeals to some aspect of the electorate. Palin doesn’t even bother to deny that this is so. The whole point of her inclusion on the Republican ticket is to be average, to be the antithesis of capable, and to encourage voters to express their contempt for politics by electing a truly incompetent politician—someone who is just like us.


In the LRB, Jonathan Raban connects Palin’s glorification of Joe Six-Pack with Poujadism, the anti-intellectual movement inspired by French demagogue Pierre Poujade.


Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.


To placate this bloc of voters, it’s most effective to persuade them that government can be made to disappear, and they can all then be happy kulaks in their peasant paradise.


Given these dynamics, it’s futile to criticize Palin from any East Coast elitist like me would consider a rational viewpoint. Raban takes a shot anyway, highlighting what seems most threatening about her—her smug contempt for intellectual curiosity:


What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile. In the televised game shows that pass for political debates in the US, it’s a winning technique: told that she has 15 seconds in which to answer, Palin invariably beats the clock, and her concision and fluency more than compensate for her unrelenting triteness.


But any attempt to highlight Palin’s failure to grasp the complexity of any issue facing America can be spun as being part of the “conspiracy” against ordinary people, but in this case the conspiracy is simply an acknowledgment of consensus politics as it must be exercised in a democratic government of any scale. Professional politicians are necessary to make government work, and the nature of the job—its ambiguities and compromises and negotiations; the stuff that requires actual deliberation and judgment—doesn’t lend itself well to glamorous portrayal in simplified stories about heroes and individual greatness. But when we vote—for most of us, the one great heroic act of civic participation we manage to muster the energy for every few years—we don’t want to waste it on a compromised character. Thus, we are better off knowing very little about the actual careers or evolving positions of the people we vote for; for the vicarious function of voting, an iconic nobody like Palin is perfect.

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