Sarah Palin's announcement of her resignation as governor of Alaska may be the end of her political career or, as some speculate, the real beginning. What seems clear is that Palin is not conservatism's new hope but its dead end. In recent days, this has been amply confirmed by the arguments of Palin defenders, focused less on her presumed merits than on her presumed injuries at her enemies' hands.
Thus, Ross Douthat, the new conservative voice at the New York Times, hails Palin as Everywoman—living proof you can aspire to the White House without an Ivy League degree—and deplores her abuse by the political and media elites based on her "gender and social class." The message to other non-elite women with political ambitions, Douthat sums up, is: "Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith."
Yet Douthat admits that Palin's "missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues" tarnished her role as a spunky common woman challenging the elites. But in that case, how much of the harsh treatment was due to prejudice and how much to Palin's own failings?
Yes, Palin has been the target of extremely vicious attacks (though the notion that no other politician has endured comparable nastiness would amuse Bill and Hillary Clinton). Her left-wing feminist foes have been especially rabid, mocking her in startlingly misogynistic language—"Republican blow-up doll" was one of the milder epithets—and denouncing "her pretense that she is a woman." The bizarre theory that Palin's youngest child, Trig, is really her grandson is still afloat in the gutters of the Internet.
And yes, this hostility has an element of snobbery. Former New Republic editor in chief Andrew Sullivan, currently a blogger with a bad case of Palin Derangement Syndrome, recently posted a catalogue of Palin's sins that included "white trash concupiscence."
Yet, such revolting extremes aside, some of the unpleasantness has been self-inflicted. Palin agreed to be John McCain's running mate knowing her teenage daughter was pregnant and single. (Of course, if Chelsea Clinton had been the expecting unwed mom, not one unkind word would have crossed the lips of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.) Nor was she particularly eager to shield Bristol Palin from the spotlight.
And then there's the matter of Palin's fitness for the second-highest office in the land. I say this as someone who initially hoped she would be an inspiring standard-bearer for conservative/libertarian feminism, a model of a woman who had it all and was a winner, not a victim.
It's not just the "liberal elites" that found Palin clueless; so did many in her own camp. Indeed, Douthat concedes she has to "bone up on the issues" if she is to have a political future. Those who believe Palin held her own debating Joe Biden forget that the McCain camp had requested a less-challenging format for that debate, with follow-up questions limited.
Palin critics on the right—George Will, Peggy Noonan, David Frum—have been slammed by the Palinistas as "haters," elitists threatened by a political star without proper intellectual credentials. Yet these same conservatives have been devout admirers of Ronald Reagan, hardly a product of the Ivy League.
Some of Palin's followers see her as the second coming of Reagan. But Reagan, despised as a "dunce" by his liberal detractors, had extensively read, written, and talked about the key issues of his day. While not an intellectual, he was a man of ideas. Palin is not known to harbor those. Her appeal is described in terms of "speaking from the heart" and exemplifying the virtues of faith and family—which is ironic, given the usual conservative derision of emotion-based liberal politics. Shortly after Palin's nomination, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson suggested that her choice to bear a child with Down's Syndrome rather than have an abortion was an adequate substitute for a political philosophy.
If Palin does have a philosophy, it is the flip side of the class-and-culture warfare of which she has been a target. In fact, it was Palin who fired many of the volleys in this war—extolling the moral superiority of small towns and rural areas and calling them "pro-American parts of the country," mocking people who had traveled abroad as spoiled kids with rich parents.
While eschewing "victim feminism," Palin has enthusiastically embraced "victim conservatism": the grievances of cultural traditionalists who feel trampled and disdained by the more educated and influential (and often, more affluent) segments of American society. Like the "oppressed groups" of the left, these traditionalists have some valid complaints but channel them into a destructive ideology of polarization and resentment.
Such a zeal can energize the base—but also fatally split it and alienate the unconverted.
Most likely, Palin will be back. But if conservatives expect her to be their warrior princess in shining armor, they are courting defeat.