Sarah Palin, and The Weekly Standard's Decadal Audition for Ideological Ventriloquist in Chief


To his (unintentional) credit, Matthew Continetti did give us fair warning two-thirds of the way through his recent Weekly Standard cover valentine/audition letter to Sarah Palin:

A good sign of condescension is when someone tells you that "things are more complicated" than you think.

This bit of jes'-folks wisdom, in a piece so full of it that even avowed fans of the Ivy League-educated, twentysomething political reporter are embarrassed for him, came a dozen paragraphs after this attempt to rehabiliate the virtues of the allegedly Palinesque Andrew Jackson and, uh, William Jennings Bryan:

Because Andrew Jackson was the founder of the modern Democratic party, we have a tendency to look at him through big-government eyes. We draw a line that starts with Jackson, runs through Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, and ends up at Barack Obama. But the facts are more complicated than that.


The facts about Sarah Palin's ideology are apparently not so much complicated as they are almost non-existent (at least by judging this article; I haven't read Continetti's book-length treatment, but I hear it's more of the same), so once again, a Weekly Standard star reporter is left in the position of talking about what this possibly presidential lump of clay ought to be thinking about.

So it is that Andrew Jackson's "democratic legacy" is one Palin "ought to embrace." Her "pointed criticisms of the Obama agenda and the liberal media" need to be "tied" to "a larger argument about how ordinary people with common sense can rescue the American economy and revitalize American democracy." Palin may have "Jacksonian instincts," says a man who was born during the Reagan presidency, "but she still hasn't forged her own political persuasion. Time to add flesh to the bone."

Needless to say, Continetti is public-spirited enough to offer his own flesh to Palin's bone. Along the way, in a piece that reeks of elite anti-elitism and uncommon-man common-manism, the writer lets the mask slip at the nearly conjugal moment of declaring that the beloved Tea Party rabble needs a Dear Leader:

Above all, the public is dissatisfied with the solutions that both parties have to offer. But, because today's populists lack institutional support, and because they don't have a programmatic agenda, they vent their frustrations in disorganized ways. The left-wing populists rail against CEO compensation, bank bailouts, and lobbyist influence in government. The right-wing populists attack the auto bailouts, government spending, and Obamacare. There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors. There was no single leader who ordered the 9/12 taxpayer march on Washington. Instead, you have multiple voices, with overlapping (and sometimes contradictory) antagonisms, agendas, and priorities.

The upshot is a creative and unregulated political marketplace. The most compelling figures and ideas prosper. No one has a dominant position. But it's also clear that what Michael Barone has called the "balance of enthusiasm" in politics is now squarely on the right. And yet, like all markets, the political trading post is prone to bubbles, excesses, rumors, and even the occasional conspiracy theory.

All of which creates a gigantic opening for a politician to display imagination and leadership. An opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism (championing free-enterprising individuals) from the bad (concocting loony theories and vilifying "enemies of the people"). Someone who will give voice to the millions who don't want government aggrandizing the powerful; who don't want government risking dangerous fiscal imbalances; who do want public policies that create the conditions for a general prosperity. Someone, in other words, who can play the same role in contemporary politics that Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan did in the past.

She lives in Alaska.

Forget Palin; let's talk about The Weekly Standard. What kind of journalistic pathology yearns so nakedly to provide the brainpower to supplement politicians' animal magnetism? And when are we going to get the mother of all internal magazine stories, the one that describes just how the same lot who breathed ideology into an emptyish vessel called John McCain 10 years ago turned on their own creation when he finally neared the finish line and doubled-down instead on the unqualified veep candidate they helped foist up on him?

Good luck finding a link to the whole thing online, but in April 1999 The Weekly Standard went through the exact same Continetti-Palin exercise, this time with David Brooks and John McCain reprising the Steve Martin/Rick Rossovich roles. Instead of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, the historical analogue was Teddy Roosevelt (with the same comical to-be-sures about the historical analogues' virulent racism and big-government activism). In both you'll see raw yearning for a Great (Wo)Man to lead us (once equipped with the right ideology), and a bizarre fixation with what Continetti calls "the imaginative frontier," or the metaphorical nostalgia trip that came after the actual frontier had closed. Like Continetti and his oughtta-bes, Brooks is filled with references to the political brute's blank slate:

when McCain talks about his patriotism, he is groping to articulate what that is. Right now his sentiments are vague. […]

McCain has no central narrative to organize his thinking, and no public philosophy to explain America's purpose. […] [But] if you look at his policies, you can begin to imagine a national narrative and a public philosophy that might be erected around them.

You don't have to squint too closely at such prose to see not just condescension but an active anti-individualism; not just political horse-picking but straight-up preference for centralization, organized behind a benighted if holographic authority figure who can lead the common man toward a shiny collective pony. It's all kind of gross.