Sarah Palin and the Triumph of ‘Old, Weird America’

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Larry Cohler-Esses in New York

Over the last couple of weeks of Palin pandemonium, I’ve reflected a lot on the collapse of the post-WW2 acceptance of leadership by an established elite, whether nepotistic (JFK. George W. Bush) or even meritocratic (Barack Obama). You know, the folks who, whether thru daddy or doggedness made their way through the established institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc.), where they could be, if not exactly educated, at least properly bred. The rest of us, more or less, deferred to these folks as the ones fit to rule and picked our own preferences from the palette of conservative to liberal on offer from this set. The leaders who were not from this set—e.g., Nixon, LBJ—were driven by their own sense of deep seated insecurity about this very fact.

I remember just 10 years ago, how I enthusiastically supported the decision of my wife, who is a rabbi, to take a job as North American director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. This was a program sponsored by the billionaire Bronfman family, explicitly devoted to cultivating, supporting and educating Jewishly a privileged elite of high-school aged, mostly Ivy-bound kids with diverse interests and great expectations. Bronfman tagged them early as headed for leadership in their respective secular fields—even if they themselves still had no idea what those fields might be. The objective was to draw them into and prep them for Jewish leadership as well.

Dianne worried this program just reinforced elitism and lavished money and programs on kids who mostly already had so much. I countered that we would always have elites. The only question was whether ours would be a Marie Antoinette or a Thomas Jefferson elite. “This is your chance to promote a Jeffersonian elite,” I told her (I meant without the slavery and forced miscegenation). But I was wrong. Palin’s undeniable popularity beyond hard core right-wing circles—poll breakdowns indicate it extends to voters who classify themselves as “independents”—represents more than anything the rejection of the very idea of an elite. And she is merely the climax—not the sudden outbreak—of this process. It has been long boiling.

For this, I give great credit to Jerry Springer. His unprecedented hit show in the 1980’s was a veritable parade of Bristol Palins and Levi Johnstons. (And if you want another guest who would work well on Springer, check out the real story of Track Palin in this week’s National Enquirer, whose track record of coverage and scoops on such matters is generally pretty enviable. See, e.g., Gary Hart, Donna Rice & the USS Monkey Business or, more recently, John Edwards and Rielle Hunter).

Through the power of mass media, Jerry was the first to really put under marquee lights before Americans their own exemplars of dysfunction, stupidity, and vindictive pettiness without filtering or judgment—and thereby validate it powerfully.

He showcased what Greil Marcus famously dubbed “old, weird America” in his book on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes—the America that generated all those blues, jazz and country songs about incest, violence and domestic abuse that became the great contribution of our culture to world music. Jerry’s parade of imitators became legion—Montel Williams, Rikki Lake, Jenny Jones, Judge Judy; the list goes on. And through them, America discovered itself; or at least an important version of itself that had long been repressed or, at best, filtered through the literary lenses of an elite who saw themselves as the educated betters of those who appeared on these shows.

But the seed for what has happened was planted even earlier. Self-validation may be one stop on the way to demands for vicarious empowerment via someone who you sense embodies your own flaws, but larger. But it is not the same thing. It was the now almost forgotten Sen. Roman Hruska (R-Neb.), a plains land prophet, who, curiously enough, provided the key ingredient before Jerry Springer even showed up to cook the stew.

Hruska is best remembered in American political history for his efforts on behalf of President Nixon’s nomination of G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970. Carswell, an obscure federal appeals court judge in Georgia with a record of support for segregation early in his career and a huge rate of reversal by higher courts during his time as a U.S. district judge, was a key part of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Despite Hruska’s effort to win his confirmation, the Senate rejected Carswell, who resigned soon after from the federal bench. Six years later, Carswell, then in private practice, was arrested and convicted of battery for advances he made to an undercover police officer in a Florida men’s room—decades before Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig!

In other words, this is a man who would have worked well as a guest on Jerry Springer.

It was Sen. Hruska’s immortal speech before the Senate on Carswell’s behalf in 1970—before the public even knew about this other part of Carswell’s life—that gave early voice to what has now grown into a national scream. Responding to charges that Carswell was a mediocrity, Hruska replied:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Taken at face value (which may require ignoring the curious fact that all three of Hruska’s examples share the same ethnicity), this is the question of a true Democrat; a discomfiting barb aimed at the Achilles heel of democracy itself. It is where democracy’s claim to be a force for the plebes is exposed as a pretension. Sadly, Hruska died in 1999, unable to witness the vision underlying his question flower and triumph.

Thirty-eight years after he posed it, Sarah Palin has arrived to answer his innocent query. If you can run the Harper Valley PTA, why not the country? Does Palin as Everywoman embody the final fulfillment of our democracy

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.