Sunday, September 14, 2008

Palin and Adams-Jefferson

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward looks at an angle of the Sarah Palin nomination I don't recall having seen before. Noting that Palin received a less-than-enthusiastic reception not just from the ideologically opposed left, but also from a number of prominent commentators on the right (David Frum, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will being named), Hayward suggests that the real argument over Palin goes clear back to the Founding Fathers:

If the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are watching the storm over Palin, they must surely be revisiting their famous dialogue about America's governing class. Adams's widely misunderstood argument that there should perhaps be an explicit recognition and provision for an aristocratic class finds its reprise in the snobbery that greeted Palin's arrival on the scene. It's not just that she didn't go to Harvard; she's never been on Meet the Press; she hasn't participated in Aspen Institute seminars or attended the World Economic Forum. She hasn't been brought into the slipstream of the establishment by which we unofficially certify our highest leaders.

The issue is not whether the establishment would let such a person as Palin cross the bar into the certified political class, but whether regular citizens of this republic have the skill and ability to control the levers of government without having first joined the certified political class. But this begs an even more troublesome question: If we implicitly think uncertified citizens are unfit for the highest offices, why do we trust those same citizens to select our highest officers through free elections?

In his reply to Adams, Jefferson expressed more confidence that political virtue and capacity for government were not the special province of a recognized aristocratic class, but that aristoi (natural aristocrats) could be found among citizens of all kinds: "It would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society." Jefferson, moreover, trusted ordinary citizens to recognize political virtue in their fellow citizens: "Leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise."

Hayward subscribes to Jefferson's view, and marshalls the examples of Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman in support.

In character, she certainly seems to share certain essentials with those two luminaries. (I'd be much more comfortable, though, if she didn't seem to share John McCain's half-panicky tendency to answer any question, no matter how simple, with rambling/pre-emptive explanations.)


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