Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 September 2008

Sarah Palin II: The Demise of American Democracy?

1. Does she know anything?
2. Is she an admirable person or a jerk?
3. Does she take issues and opponents seriously?
4. Can she think?
5. Whom will she pick for the team?
Update (9/17/08)


Sarah Palin has been John McCain’s choice as running mate for almost two weeks now. Just after that choice, I wrote a post advising respect, caution, and circumspection. We Democrats didn’t want to make the mistake of underestimating either Palin or women’s frustration with our political process. We were in “information gathering mode.”

Now, two weeks later, things have changed. Our cable “infotainment” stations have treated Palin with all the gravity of a contestant on American Idol. But our few remaining serious news media have told us all we need to know about Sarah Palin.

About a year ago I proposed five general questions for vetting candidates for high national office, and I applied them to our primary campaign. They are really rough screening questions. They don’t tell whether a candidate will do a good job, but only whether he or she has the minimal qualifications for rational consideration. Here they are, with links to the original post:
After two weeks, we now know enough about Sarah Palin to apply these five tests to her.

1. Does she know anything? In her first real television interview, Charlie Gibson of ABC News asked Palin her opinion of the “Bush doctrine.” Palin had no idea what he was talking about. She stumbled around like a failing student in an oral exam, trying to elicit some hint to jog her memory.

Some commentators thought it was an unfair question. I strongly disagree. The Bush pre-emption doctrine—that it’s OK to start a war to “pre-empt” a perceived threat—was our chief reason for invading Iraq. That doctrine also marked the most dramatic change in foreign policy in our history.

No other major war did we start or enter for that reason. Except for our War of Independence, our Civil War, and the Mexican war (a war of territorial expansion), we fought all our wars because we were attacked (World War II), our shipping and trade were attacked (War of 1812), or an ally was attacked (Gulf I, World War I, World War II, Korean War). We also entered ongoing wars to help our allies (World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam). Only in the Mexican War, over 150 years ago, have we ever attacked a nation that had not attacked us and was not engaged in active hostilities with our allies.

It is not as if these facts were obscure. They were and are central to our history and to the present administration’s legacy. They were and are subjects of intense scrutiny and discussion among journalists, pundits, politicians, diplomats and experts in national security and international law. At least one best-selling book focuses on them.

I would have expected any well-informed adult—or any college graduate in history, politics, political science or public policy—at least to ask “Do you mean the pre-emption doctrine?” That a person who might some day be our president didn’t even know enough to seek that clarification is appalling.

But that’s not all. Until last year, Sarah Palin didn’t even have a passport. Think of that. A president’s principal duties lie in the fields of foreign and military policy. It is there that he or she acts virtually alone, as Commander in Chief. Yet for most of her adult life, Sarah Palin has never been outside the United States. Electing her as vice president would be like appointing a lifelong pacifist as Secretary of Defense.

That’s still not all. Sarah Palin disbelieves in evolution, the foundation of all modern biology. And she thinks that humans are not responsible for global warming. In sum, Sarah Palin is ignorant of the most important facts, theories and policies of our age.

2. Is she an admirable person or a jerk? Two weeks ago, I speculated that Palin might not be a jerk because she helped remove obvious jerks from power in her state. But that speculation was premature.

Most of us would agree that liars are jerks, especially when they lie about something important. In her first two weeks as candidate, Sarah Palin told or was complicit in at least three lies.

The most important to me involved her stance on global warming. A sentence from her own hand, which I quoted in my previous post, implied that she accepted the universal scientific consensus on global warming: that it exists and humans are a major cause of it. Yet in her interview with Charlie Gibson, she revealed skepticism about the second of those facts, if not complete ignorance of it. She had taken me in, but she won’t again. (I may be naïve because l have trouble understanding how someone with zero scientific training has the hubris to dispute the near-unanimous conclusion of thousands of the world’s most dedicated scientists.)

Palin’s second lie she told to her own son, in a very public ceremony before his deployment to Iraq. She told the troops that they would be fighting “the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans.” Her son and the other troops she addressed were going to Iraq.

By now every informed American knows that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks of September 11. What can you call someone who repeats Dick Cheney’s big lie to her own son (and the nation) as he departs to serve his country, but a jerk?

Finally, there’s the “lipstick” lie, that Barack Obama’s remark about lipstick on a pig was directed at her. It wasn’t. It was directed to McCain’s policies and his absurd claim that he is the candidate of change. Anyone who sees or reads Obama’s remarks in context and can understand English gets that point. What can you call a candidate who takes pride in being able to field dress a moose but plays the victim of sexism by grossly mischaracterizing an opponent’s remark, but a jerk?

3. Does she take issues and opponents seriously? Here the answer is a resounding “no.” On two of the most important foreign-policy issues of our time, Palin’s approach would be fodder for Saturday Night Live, if only it were not so disturbing.

When asked about her “insights” into Russian actions, Palin stuck with the idiotic notion that Alaska’s proximity to Russia provides them. But when Charlie Gibson asked her to give examples, she couldn’t provide a single one.

Arguing that leaders can absorb knowledge and insight from geographic proximity is like arguing that students can learn by sleeping on their textbooks. As a teacher, I wish that were so, but it isn’t. No serious person would entertain either notion for more than a microsecond.

Palin’s second departure from seriousness is even more troubling. She said that the conflict in Iraq, which we started for reasons that proved false, is “a task that is from God.” She suggested that the War in Iraq—and impliedly future wars, perhaps with Iran—can be justified by what one person thinks God wants.

Ponder that one for a moment. The very idea of what God wants excludes evidence, reasoned discussion, realism and pragmatism—all the things that make up good diplomacy, foreign policy and military strategy.

That’s why we are fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. There is no way to deal with them rationally because they have a firm conviction that their marching orders come straight from God. The notion that a person with a similar outlook might be a heartbeat away from our presidency and the codes to our thousands of nuclear weapons is mind boggling. I might laugh hysterically if I were not so terrified.

4. Can she think? Here again, Palin snookered me. Her piece about polar bears in the New York Times seemed to show some evidence of thinking ability.

But Polar bears are utterly insignificant compared to the larger issues we face, which could decide the fate of our nation, Western democracy, and our planet.

Palin’s “reasoning” that propinquity to Russia provides insight and experience is a non-sequitur. Her rejection of human contribution to global warming—when the northern parts and permafrost roads of her own state are literally melting away—reflects no thought, just greed. If rational at all, it betrays a desire not to disturb the steady flow of oil revenue that provides her citizens with the equivalent of a negative income tax, i.e., a privately supported government dole. It shows an utter disregard for the long term.

Even Palin’s politics reflect a lack of thought. Why raise the old myth that Iraq contributed to 9/11? Although maybe 30% of us (the uninformed) still believe that, the other 70% do not. In a race that depends on nonaligned and independent voters, why insult and alienate 70% of your target audience? That’s not just ignorance, dumb diplomacy and dumb foreign policy; it’s dumb politics, too.

5. Whom will she pick for the team? At the moment, this question has little relevance. With all his experience, John McCain is smart enough not to let Sarah Palin get anywhere near the list of choices for his cabinet.

But suppose he were to die or become incapacitated. What would happen then? Whom does Sarah Palin know? Does she know anyone like the able, nationally prominent figures that Lincoln picked for his cabinet? like the people I expected Obama to pick for his Dream Team?

I’ve spent time in Alaska. It’s a beautiful state, perhaps our most beautiful. It is probably our most pristine. But apart from oil and gas workers, most of the tiny population (670,000, at last census) who live there do so because they want to be as far as possible from the complexities of our congested, frantic, highly technological globalized economy. To say that picking even prominent Alaskans for national leadership positions would be a gamble is to state the obvious.

More than likely, if something happened to John McCain, someone else would become the real leader of government, just as Dick Cheney has become de facto president on many issues during the last seven years. Dick Cheney at least had the distinction of being elected. In the case of McCain’s death or incapacitation, the hidden leader would probably be someone he had appointed. So much for democracy.


Therein lies the conundrum of which Palin is the latest symbol. Nearly eight years ago, our people elected an utterly unqualified man as president because (more than his opponent) he seemed like a good person with whom to have a beer. This time, numerous women appear devoted to Sarah Palin because “she’s one of us!”

That kind of thinking may be democracy’s Achilles Heel. The success of popular democracy depends on the people’s ability and desire to recognize and pick leaders better than themselves. If they pick the average Joe or Mary just for being like them, then ultimately popular democracy in America will fail. Either they will choose unqualified and incompetent leaders like Dubya, or (more likely) smart but self-serving leaders will gain power by manipulating them. That’s what happened in Casear’s time, and that’s what may be happening to us.

Sarah Palin is an average “soccer mom” who gained high office in her state as a result of unusual conditions: longstanding and outrageous public corruption. She is nothing more. No one who runs a multinational company or a populous industrial state would pick her for anything more than a figurehead or spokesperson. Yet John McCain impulsively chose her, and “we the people” might elect her as vice president because she’s “like us.” (I can think of no other remotely rational reason.)

Maybe that’s why large and powerful but democratic empires have been so rare in human history. Leaders who are like the average Joe or Mary simply can’t compete with clever and devious folk who have what it takes to think, negotiate and fight their way to the top of a huge power structure like Russia’s or China’s today.

In all the five thousand years of recorded human history, there have only three multi-ethnic democratic states of scope and power comparable to ours today: Rome’s, the British Empire and the U.S.A. If Sarah Palin ever becomes president, I would not bet against the chance of our following ancient Rome into empire.

Update (9/17/08):

It’s always nice for a man to quote a woman on a woman, so as not to be accused of sexism. When you have one woman quoting another, it’s even better.

Carly Fiorina is the fired ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard and a high official in the McCain-Palin campaign. Here’s what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported Fiorina had to say about Sarah Palin:
“Carly Fiorina, the woman John McCain sent out to defend Sarah Palin and rip anyone who calls her a tabula rasa on foreign policy and the economy, admitted Tuesday that Palin was not capable of running Hewlett-Packard.”

“That’s pretty damning coming from Fiorina, who also was not capable of running Hewlett-Packard.”
At the end of her piece Dowd quoted, with apparent approval, a retired Alaskan school principal’s description of Palin:
“She’s a child, inexperienced and simplistic. . . . [Her campaign is] taking us back to junior high school.”
Can you imagine Palin working with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, let alone besting Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao in any kind of competition that matters? Do you suppose that any of these leaders is not fully aware of the Bush Doctrine and all its many implications? What chance would Palin have in serious negotiations with any of them, having no national or international experience and knowing nothing?


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