I just finished Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. I’m particularly busy right now, so the fact that I postponed other things that really need doing in order to read through it quickly is testament to the interest Palin’s account sustains. Interestingly, I had read Peter Wehner’s blog post on Palin, at Commentary’s “contentions,” only a couple of days before I started on Going Rogue. This has been “Palin Week,” of course, with her book tour starting and interviews by everyone: Oprah, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh. My blogging colleague C.K. MacLeod posted a brief, pungent response to Peter Wehner, and Victor Davis Hanson had thoughtful, compelling words, at his Pajamas Media blog, on her star power with middle America. Questions, theories, analyses, conclusions everywhere you looked this week: What’s the deal with this Sarah Palin gal?
Peter, for one, by his own report, doesn’t get the furor over Palin. I can sympathize, in a way. I have always found him to be a careful and balanced commentator, and it encourages me that there are people – like him – who can comment critically without betraying repulsion or descending to snark. He rightly quotes Yuval Levin on the power of Palin’s persona to reveal the hostile elitism lurking in too many of her critics, and by implication distances himself from that dynamic; credibly, in my view.
But I start here with the reference to his piece on her from Wednesday because it seems representative to me, of the sentiment from many in the senior ranks of both conservatism and the GOP. Peter’s conclusion is, of course, the title proposition:
The intensity of feelings Sarah Palin evokes from almost all sides is remarkable — and for me, a bit puzzling. I don’t think she has earned either adoration or contempt. But as we’re seeing, she elicits plenty of both.
But it’s an earlier passage that has been working on me:
If you believe, as I do, that the GOP once again needs to become the “party of ideas” — as it did under Ronald Reagan — then Palin is not the solution to what ails it. At this stage, based on the interviews I have seen with her, she doesn’t seem able to articulate the case for conservatism in a manner that is compelling or even particularly persuasive. She is nothing like, to take three individuals I would hold up as public models, Margaret Thatcher, William Bennett, and Antonin Scalia — people brimming with ideas, knowledgeable and formidable, intellectually well-grounded, and impossible to dismiss.
I too admire all three of these individuals, and I believe each one has made a difference. But I wonder how applicable their strengths are to the present political problem for America. I would note that none of them has run for vice president of the United States, a political proposition that is, in fact, different even from campaigning for a party majority in a parliamentary system. None of them was ever a governor of a US state, or indeed mayor of a small US town.
It’s quite possible that Margaret Thatcher could have been elected to any of these offices if she had been born in the USA, although I think her debating skills and style of leadership are particularly suited to parliamentary government on the English model: voters electing a ministerial package from no more than two major parties with real influence; and policy hammered out through a mechanism that, however confrontational it may be in tone and interparty (even intraparty) jockeying, is still top-down-unified in a way our Constitution is specifically designed to preclude. England benefited greatly from Thatcher, but Thatcher was made possible by England too. I’m not sure how she would have fared in one of the Continental parliaments, or Israel’s Knesset, in which multiple fractious parties make governing coalitions fragile and timid.
In the US, of course, we elect our president, the head of government, separately (along with our vice president), and expect him to function as one of the checks on Congress, and Congress as a check on him. Not everyone is cut out for every style of government. Again, I’d back Maggie against most anything; had she been born here, she might well have been our first female president. Bill Bennett and Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, would not have been president or vice president. They have done excellent things for America from the positions they have served in, but whether they are impossible to dismiss or not, they are impossible to elect.
This matters. I don’t think anyone thinks of Palin as an emerging heir to William F. Buckley, Jr, carrying on a tradition of intellectual definition, but as a leader who could be put in office by the people. C.K. MacLeod gets at this in one way when he makes this observation:
It’s because people – the people who makes Palin a “populist” – sense enduring and worsening problems and great dangers (and opportunities) that our political and intellectual betters don’t seem to grasp and, sitting on their very comfortable bottoms, may not even see a need to face squarely; and that even individuals like those Wehner mentions approvingly – “Margaret Thatcher, William Bennett, and Antonin Scalia” – haven’t been able to lead us out of.
Bennett and Scalia, of course, haven’t been in positions from which they could lead us in the way C.K. refers to here, although people like them have. Thatcher held such a position in Britain in the last decade of the Cold War, and while she made significant changes, Britain is today a nation all but overwhelmed by welfarism.
In retrospect, Thatcher rolled back more socialization of industry than any popularly-elected leader I can think of in history – but the main thing the resulting prosperity has gone to is postponing a financial reckoning for the country’s pervasive welfarism. That dynamic has been common throughout the democratic industrial nations, in fact: everywhere, including the US, where economic liberalization in the 1980s and ‘90s allowed strong growth, governments have ridden the prosperity to an unsustainable explosion of regulation, constituency-tending subsidies, and general-population entitlement obligations.
But the financial reckoning is here. It’s one of the things C.K. refers to that people are alarmed about: its potential is catastrophic. And the thing about Bennett and Scalia, at least, is that they, and people like them, have not prevented it. A long list of eminent conservative figures must join their liberal-progressive colleagues in that category.
Ronald Reagan – like Thatcher – did something much harder than be a conservative thinker. He significantly lowered federal taxes, after a period of more than 40 years in which the American left had become accustomed to holding the political high ground on that issue, and had entrenched a taxation index much more steeply progressive than what we have today. He allowed the Fed to curb inflation even though he understood that that would have a short-term effect on jobs and small business. (The result was the recession of 1982-83.)
He took on the air traffic controllers’ union and prevailed – something conservatives have never, on the whole, thought of viscerally as a triumph, because who hates air traffic controllers, or thinks of them as putting up union thugs to intimidate the public? They had nothing like the current political profile of the UAW or SEIU, back in 1981. People didn’t think of air traffic controllers as surly employees in purple T-shirts, snarling at the public from behind desks at the DMV or the county permit office. They certainly didn’t think of air traffic controllers as union-shop workers who retired with better pensions than half the population, and were determined to tax and bully the whole population – including millions of people with nothing like their benefits – to make sure their benefits kept coming.
It wasn’t popular to fire the air traffic controllers, but Reagan acted on principle: “There is no right to strike against the public interest.” He acted on principle in (famously) cutting the growth of federal funding for school lunch programs. Think a minute about how much more it’s going to cost to fund a school lunch program if the feds are involved; and about the fact that, although food is indeed set in front of children, where the money goes is to the food industry – which of course lobbies as all industries do to persuade us that millions will be starving in the street if money does not keep going to it.
It is a serious and powerful point of principle, that the government does not need to step in and demand food on behalf of schoolchildren on the scale implied by federal intervention. Programs of this kind are better executed at the local level; even doing it at the state level adds layers of unnecessary cost and politicization. The difference between Reagan and virtually every other conservative Republican politician was that he could do more than enunciate principle. He could act on it. All his actions on principle took courage – every single one. He was defamed, pilloried, and made fun of for the vast majority of them. He persuaded plenty of Americans to vote for him, but he got the usual ration of trouble from Congress, even while he had a GOP majority in the Senate; and the media take on his policies was routinely negative. He had to act over and over again – outside the norm of the generally center-left consensus of the media and the intellectual elite – without any comradely, endorsing amity from those or most other quarters.
What he had going for him was more than an articulate appreciation of principle: he had moral courage. And that brings us back to Sarah Palin, and Going Rogue. My opinion on the Palin phenomenon is that what so many people see in her is an electable politician with moral courage. She is electable not merely because she is attractive and energetic, but because her conservatism – what she calls “Commonsense Conservatism” – is principled without shorting pragmatism. She recognizes a proper role for government, but not the idea of government as eschatological agent that even many conservatives have. What Going Rogue does is spell out Palin’s concept of governance; and it is sure to requite the anticipation of her many supporters.
Rush Limbaugh has already made the point that Palin’s is a policy book. He’s right: it’s mostly about the proper role of government in the life of the people, and effective ways to wield the tools of government on the people’s behalf. It makes Palin’s points through anecdote, and a series of reflections on what principles she chose to operate on, and why she made the decisions she did. I imagine she consciously chose to subtitle her book An American Life, which of course was the title of Reagan’s post-Oval Office autobiography; and the parallels in terms of how the two politicians lay out their political stories are strong. Reagan too wrote primarily about how principles – typically pretty basic ones – drove his own decisions.
I remember that when his memoir came out, a number of conservative writers applauded the simplicity and directness of the writing as reflecting Reagan the man, but obviously (and often overtly) wished for lengthier passages on policy dissection. At the time, when I was much younger, I thought they had a point. But the older I get, the more I realize that the greater talent is to distill principle simply, convey it without fatal temporizing, and have a record of acting on it to write about. Exhaustive writers on policy, and on the abstract challenges to principle, are, if not a dime a dozen, at least no more than $100K a dozen. But money can’t buy a political leader with the moral courage to take principle at face value and act on it.
Over and over again, it’s that quality that we see in Sarah Palin. She writes of the differences between herself and the long-serving mayor whom she defeated in Wasilla:
It was evident during my years on the council that the mayor and I had sharply differing ideas about the future of Wasilla and how to make that future happen. He was for more government control; I was for smaller government and more individual freedom. I wanted government to appropriately provide the private sector with infrastructure tools to increase opportunities. Stein supported expanding land-use restrictions and building codes. I wanted to eliminate property taxes (since we now had the sales tax), slow down the rate of government growth, and build roads and water and sewer systems. And I would support capital projects if the people voted for them and acknowledged that they’d be expected to fund them.
As Palin points out, in local government, there’s no distance between you, your fellows on the governing council, and your constituents. Everyone knows how you voted and what decisions you made. You have to look people in the eye when you’re opposing them – something almost all lifetime politicians who reach safe seats in Congress, or who go in and out a revolving executive-departments door, have not had to face up to in decades.
In that environment, Palin, during her membership on the city council, voted among other things against raising the mayor’s salary, and against a development plan that would have required Wasillans to shift from taking their own trash to the dump to paying for a weekly service. In both cases, as in others, she knew the personal significance of these votes to fellow members of the town government: the mayor wanted his salary raised, and one of the council members owned the local garbage truck company. But, as she put it: “I had to live with my own conscience, so I voted according to my principles and let the chips fall where they may.”
What Palin was for was getting roads paved, getting water and sewer lines laid, and cutting property taxes for Wasillans – which she actually managed to do, along with eliminating a number of local taxes and fees on business. By her own account, she resisted the encroachment of “planned community” ideas that would make it more expensive – even prohibitively so – for local Alaskans to own homes, while simultaneously placing new limits on their opportunities for earning a living. Government was not there to tell the people how to live, but to provide infrastructure that would attract business and ensure the people had opportunity. Roads and water lines accomplished that; garbage service mandates did not.
One thing a lifetime city-dweller from the Lower 48 recognizes immediately is that there are a lot more people down here who think of Palin’s approach – which resonated perfectly with the majority of her fellow Wasillans – as outdated, and even wrong. I think there are plenty of conservatives who would see it as over the top to resist mandated city garbage collection on principle. But there are also plenty of people of all stripes who love Palin precisely because of her rural, small-town background, and the ruggedly individualistic self-sufficiency of her breed.
Victor Davis Hanson makes the case beautifully that practitioners of the self-sufficient arts are often sources of wisdom and principled leadership that are every bit as good as – and sometimes better than – those in other walks of life who don’t get their hands as dirty. Here he summarizes his experience with a background in many ways similar to Palin’s:
I am prejudiced because what I learned over years of farming—dealing with California labor, environmental, legal, and tax regulations, pruning, tractor driving, listening to my grandfather, and handling unsavory characters, understanding plant physiology and fruit-production, etc.—I think gave me a different, but in the long run as good an education as a BA/PhD in Classical languages.
I found the former harder to do than the latter, the world of the one rather brutal and existential, of the other sheltered and protected. In other words, I would trust the judgment of someone with Palin’s background on matters of Iran or Honduras or Putin far more than I would someone of Obama’s resume. I would trust my neighbor who farms 180 acres more than I would a chairman of an academic department. I know, I know, there are extreme binaries, but they are reflective of the lack of autonomy and physicality today and the undue emphasis on elite schooling as prerequisites for success. We know now that you can do nothing and still finish as the head of Harvard Law Review, or win a Nobel Prize, but if you miss an antlered moose, or run out of gas in the tundra, or fall overboard on a salmon boat, there is no Norwegian committee or Harvard Law Dean to bail you out.
The iterations of life-vocational factors and issues for VDH and Palin are quite similar. She has a knowledge, as intimate as VDH’s of grape farming, of hands-on fishing in Alaska – fishing and processing fish to earn a living – and of dealing with buyers and state regulators, of maintaining equipment, of enduring weather, of slogging through long days of sweat, chill, aching limbs, silent endeavor, and “slime.” She knows the Alaska oil and gas industry not just from regulating it but from her husband’s long years of seasonal employment on the North Slope: from being an “oil widow” and seeing the inner workings of the industry, its problems – and its value – through a knowledgeable, skilled employee’s eyes. Her book is incandescent with the natural, unforced appreciation of the multigenerational family, and she quotes the terse, life-changing wisdom of respected elders with the same tone of humility and gratitude VDH does when he speaks of his.
This attitude, which cannot be simulated, resonates with many, many Americans – perhaps even more than would choose, themselves, to live in such a way. But the principles of this life translate to others. Here is Palin in the caption of a photo, one that captures her and Todd salmon-fishing:
Todd’s the hardest-working fisherman I know. He goes days without sleep and picks salmon from the nets with amazing skill and speed. He’s been at this for nearly forty years. He hires a crew, sometimes greenhorns, to join us every summer, and if they start off not knowing what hard work is, Todd makes sure they know what it feels like by the end of the season.
The Palins have not left this life, nor do they want to. How many families are there across America whose members live by a similar creed, whether their professional commitments are to plumbing, accounting, teaching, engineering, coaching, farming, selling cars, or working in canneries? What Palin understands is what it’s like to be these people. To view your life as good, to believe in living it by principles passed on from your parents, and to want from government mainly that it stay off your back, and provide a few basic services.
Palin recounts this outburst from a fellow citizen when her predecessor as mayor of Wasilla was talking up his degree in public administration:
I once heard a voter bark at Mayor Stein that he wasn’t impressed with his public administration degree. “I can’t support a guy whose degree is in public management,” the guy hollered after a local debate. “The public does not need to be managed!”
I’m not sure Peter Wehner understands how strongly this resonates with many Americans. Nor do I think a lot of conservatives understand how ignorantly condescending it is on their part to think that people like Todd and Sarah Palin need, if not managing, at least someone to articulate principles for them more deeply, or perhaps more elegantly or poetically, than Sarah Palin does here:
Theories like [Karl Marx’s] pretty much get run over on Main Street. Big Business starts as small business. Both are built by regular people using their gifts, skills, and resources to turn their passions into products or services, supplying demands and creating jobs in the process – like Todd’s family, with its roots in the Alaska fishing industry. I had put a free-market, pragmatic philosophy to work in Wasilla, implementing conservative fiscal policies conducive to economic growth, and I got to explain this as I campaigned for lieutenant governor.
Having advocated for local control across the state as president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors, I added that principle to my campaign platform. I had great respect for the need for state government to preserve locally enacted policies. Likewise, I believed that national leaders have a responsibility to respect the Tenth Amendment and keep their hands off the states. It’s the old Jeffersonian view that the affairs of the citizens are best left in their own hands. So when I discussed economic policy, I wasn’t shy about calling myself a hard-core fiscal conservative. Some folks liked what they heard, and I picked up a couple of endorsements here and there and won some opinion polls. But I wasn’t part of any political machine, or the Juneau good ol’ boys club, so I was definitely seen as the outsider.
I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. These sound like “ideas” to me. I have to confess that I am less and less impressed with people who can talk longer and write more, but can’t get anything done. Sure, anyone can mount a rhetorical challenge to the principles outlined above. Anyone can simply dismiss them. But an awful lot of people have simply dismissed Bill Bennett and Antonin Scalia over the years; there’s a whole segment of the left that knows Bennett as “the guy who gambles.” Dismissal awaits us all, at the hands of some of our fellows. No one in the realm of political ideas occupies an unassailable position – and I’m not even convinced that voters are persuaded by elegant arguments nearly as much as they are by evidence of character.
Palin spent her 17-year career in Alaska politics refusing to cave, gloss over corruption, or go along to get along. After losing the lieutenant governor race she was appointed to head the oil and gas commission, and ended up resigning because of the corruption and cronyism that she was powerless to combat. The problem ran through the Alaska GOP to the governor’s office, and in confronting it, Palin took as much friendly fire as she did opportunistic buckshot from the Democrats. The episode was obviously an important one for her, and anyone who wants to understand her decision to resign as governor this summer should start with reading about her tenure on the oil and gas commission (on pages 93 to 100). At one point she records this telling mental passage: “… I thought, This is it. I’m taking on the party and putting it in writing. My career is over. Well, if I die, I die.”
She would use these words from the Biblical story of Esther again in explaining her decision to step down in July 2009 (a decision that becomes clearer when you really get a sense of how thoroughly Alaska state business was being disrupted by the endless, utterly frivolous ethics complaints. By mid-2009 Palin was unable to function as governor anyway).
But as governor, Palin also accomplished the unprecedented in forcing ExxonMobil to begin drilling a package of long-held leases the company had been sitting on for decades. She prevailed on the legislature to agree to a competitively-bid contract for building the new gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48, as well as to state regulation that would discourage idling the infrastructure, but would also encourage industry investment, without presuming to set its direction. Only time will tell how well the provisions for transparency in Palin’s Alaska Gas Inducement Act (AGIA) actually come through for the state, but it was a remarkable political victory to get them incorporated at all. Building a pipeline in Alaska without the project being handled non-competitively, in back rooms, is very unusual.
It is a fair criticism of Palin’s background that it is very Alaska-oriented, and that Alaska is unique in some ways that matter to concepts of governance. The one that leaps out at an economic libertarian is the idea enshrined in the state constitution of the people being the owners of the natural resources, in the sense of being owed revenues from them by business. I spent many of my early years in an oil and gas state too, and I can tell you, except for some Oklahoma Indian tribes, the people of Oklahoma don’t receive revenues from oil and gas. The folks in the business – individual mineral-rights owners, equipment companies, drillers, refiners, investors, employees – get income and profits from them, and the state levies taxes.
It is interesting from this perspective to follow Palin’s account of her dealings with the oil and gas industry. The vulnerability of this public ownership concept to corruption is, in theory, enormous; what may surprise us more than the corruption there has been is the corruption there hasn’t. Imagine this concept in place in Illinois, for example. But Palin’s approach was the opposite of her predecessors’: rather than carving out her own little piece of the back-room action, she proposed to take the people’s interest seriously, and represent it honestly, demanding true competition between aspiring contractors, public transparency, and mechanisms to hold the industry accountable to the people, very much like the accountability of publicly-traded companies to boards and stockholders.
This seems to me like a key to Palin. There are a lot of conservatives out here, myself included, who would have a hard time getting past the un-conservatism of the public-ownership concept. We weren’t, in general, raised from our earliest years in Alaska. I’m not sure I will ever see this concept of public ownership in the way that seems natural to Alaskans – and I can think of at least 40-some other states it wouldn’t work in. But all that said, Palin’s unique contribution has been to operate within such a system with integrity and public accountability.
She is not, apparently, the kind of conservative who would concentrate on changing the state constitution to rid it of the public-ownership concept, as a sort of systemic fix to the problem of government-business cronyism. Her version of not “going along,” in this matter, was to enforce integrity measures on the system that existed.
I can see how some conservatives would regard this as intellectually limited. Palin doesn’t make any real arguments for the Alaska system, she simply outlines it as the starting point for the state executive. I imagine its origins lie with the preference of Alaska’s native peoples for village-based traditionalism, and the sense of having collective stewardship of the land and its resources. We should not too readily dismiss, I think, the apparent compatibility for Palin of this concept with her commitment to free enterprise. Given Alaska’s character, I’m not sure what value there would be in trying to make a change as radical as transforming the whole idea of resource ownership. One thing this aspect of Alaska and Palin does highlight is the power of a federal union to offer protection for such a quiescent system against outside predators. In few other nations on earth would Alaskans have the option of being Alaskan, and avoid being picked over by vultures.
One thing I am confident of, after reading Going Rogue, is that Palin would have no trouble at all understanding the argument I have just laid out. The impression I have is that she would – wisely – not let herself get bogged down in it: in wondering what was ultimately right, and what would be the absolute best kind of system to set up. Conservatives have their own tendency to try to immanentize the eschaton in this regard: to seek the better at the expense of the good enough. Frankly, I would much rather elect leaders who aren’t fully convinced that Way A of organizing humanity is better than Way B, but whose priority is to just stop all the unnecessary organizing of humanity while we are still so far from figuring it out. Just ceasing to heap new regulations, taxes, and fees on me, and then going on to roll some back, would be good enough to start with.
The quality Palin has is trustworthiness in this regard. She is different from everyone else because of it. I wasn’t especially thrilled with any of the GOP possibilities in 2008: sorta liked Thompson, was alarmed by Huckabee’s populism, could have lived with Giuliani but wasn’t overly inspired, voted for Romney in the primary although I have my reservations about him. What I would have expected from none of these politicians is a principled stand against enlarging government. The same goes for McCain, whom I of course voted for in the general election. All of these candidates, even Thompson, had a comfort with the overregulated, financially unsustainable status quo that promised only “more of same”; I went into the election knowing that choosing a Republican would be merely choosing not to be dragged down the path toward socialism as fast as with a Democrat in the Oval Office.
Palin is not a status quo politician. Her record makes that clear. As with Reagan, I would consider it reasonable to expect her to behave differently from all the rest of them. If you want a good outline of the case for her in this regard, read Going Rogue. Ultimately, I think the pull of Palin on so many people boils down to this, and is generated in large part by her obvious joy in simply being an ordinary American. She is not a pack-up-and-head-to-Washington politician. She is happy where she is. She loves her family and is fully immersed in its life, in the cycle of work and providing for daily subsistence, of raising children and celebrating their passages, cheering victories and healing wounds. She is the people; she knows what she wants from government, and proposes to hold government to that, rather than using it, in the manner of the professional politician, as a stepping stone to become something else.
Going Rogue is suffused with vignettes of ordinary, quintessentially American life. There is a lot about Todd, about parents, friends, life at work, life in the community, and of course, about the Palin children. The most American note struck in the whole book had me laughing out loud, though, and it perfectly encapsulates what so many people love about Sarah Palin. She writes at some length about Trig, the Down syndrome baby she had while in the governor’s office, and about the remarkable response of the disabled to her candidacy for vice president. She was deeply affected by their response, but manages to write movingly about it without becoming saccharine.
There is a uniquely American freedom from existential resentment in her conclusion on this topic, an un-ironic appeal to humor and grace that few politicians get away with:
It was after meeting all these amazing people that Todd and I proudly displayed the bumper sticker a very cool group from Arizona sent us, which read, MY KID HAS MORE CHROMOSOMES THAN YOUR KID!
It is a political posture, to believe in taking the life that comes to you and making something good out of it, without feeling sorry for yourself, or theorizing that the whole world has to be reorganized before you can be happy, or before anyone else has a right to. After reading Going Rogue, this Optimistic Conservative is ready to hear more from Sarah Palin.