Sarah Palin and the Decline of Conservatism

What happened to the party of Goldwater and Reagan?


The 19th century American writer Henry Adams said the descent of American presidents from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant was enough to discredit the theory of evolution. The same could be said of the pantheon of conservative political heroes, which in the last half-century has gone from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin. That refutation may be agreeable to Palin, who doesn't put much stock in Darwin anyway.

You can confirm all this by looking at what the three wrote. Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, made his reputation four years earlier with an eloquent and intellectually coherent volume, The Conscience of a Conservative, which laid out a blueprint for the policies he favored.

Reagan likewise made the thinking person's case for conservatism. Between 1975 and 1979, after he had finished two terms as governor of California, he did some 1,000 radio commentaries, most of which he wrote himself. They were later collected in Reagan, In His Own Hand, which provides the texts of his handwritten manuscripts and proves that, far from being the "amiable dunce" of liberal mythology, he thought hard and clearly about the issues of his time.

Palin? Her new memoir, Going Rogue, fills up 413 pages, but it has less policy heft than a student council speech. Where Reagan dove into the murk of arms control and Goldwater fathomed federal farm programs, Palin skims over the surface of a puddle.

Amid all the tales of savoring the aromas at the state fair and having her wardrobe vetted by snotty campaign staffers, she sets aside space to lay out her vision of what it means to be a "Commonsense Conservative." It takes up all of 11 pages and leans heavily on prefabricated lines like "I am a conservative because I deal with the world as it is" and "If you want real job growth, cut capital gains taxes."

But the priorities of Going Rogue are striking poses and attitudes, not making actual arguments about the proper role of government. The book is meant to create an image, or maybe a brand—folksy but shrewd, tough but feminine, noble but beset by weaklings and traitors, ever-smiling unless you awaken her inner "Mama Grizzly Bear" by scrutinizing her loved ones.

No one could be more pleased with her than she is with herself. Reading the book is like watching Palin preen in front of a mirror for hours on end, as she tirelessly compliments herself for courage, gumption, devotion to family, and maverick independence.

Who needs policy? In her world—and the world of legions of conservatives who revere her—the persona is the policy. Palin is beloved because she's (supposedly) just like ordinary people, which (supposedly) gives her a profound understanding of their needs.

That attitude used to be associated with the left, which claimed to speak for the ordinary folks who get shafted by the system. Logic and evidence about policy, to many liberals, were less important than empathy and good intentions. Now it's conservatives who think we should be guided by our guts, not our brains.

Palin is the embodiment of this approach, never imagining that knowledge and reflection might be of more value than instinct. When Oprah asked if she had felt any doubts about her readiness to be vice president—which requires the readiness to be president—Palin replied breezily, "No, no—I didn't blink. … I felt quite confident in my abilities and my executive experience and I knew that this is an executive administrative job." (The audience tittered.)

Contrast that with Reagan, who after learning of his victory on Election Night 1980 told his supporters, "There's never been a more humbling moment in my life." Palin doesn't do humble.

You could almost forget that for well over a year, Republicans have ridiculed Barack Obama as lighter than a souffle, an inexperienced upstart who owes everything to arrogant presumption and a carefully crafted image. But Obama wrote a 375-page book, The Audacity of Hope, that shows a solid, and occasionally tedious, grasp of issues.

It is hard to imagine Palin (as opposed to a ghost writer) producing anything comparable. Almost as hard as it is to imagine that modern conservatives would expect it.

Leaders who can think? That's so 20th century.