In Tuesday's New York Times, David Brooks launches a critique of Sarah Palin, essentially concluding that her populist appeal is dangerous and ill-conceived. He yearns for the day when "conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement," one that stressed "classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience, and prudence." Brooks, like a handful of other conservative intellectuals, believes Palin "compensates for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness."
Well, at the risk of appearing brash, let me say that I am glad to see my old friend finally pushed to the point where he has to make an overt defense of elitism, after years of demonstrating covert support for elitism. We conservatives who believe Governor Palin represents a solid vice-presidential pick should be extremely comfortable engaging this issue.
Brooks's main argument against Palin is that she lacks the type of experience and historical understanding that led President Bush to a 26 percent approval rating in his final months in office. Yet the notion that the Bush Administration got into trouble because it didn't have enough "experience" is absurd. George W. Bush was governor of Texas for six years. His father was president. His primary advisors on matters of foreign policy were Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell. In 2000, it could hardly have been possible to find a more experienced team to head up a GOP administration. Brooks's notion that the Bush Administration was "the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice" is simply ludicrous. Does anyone believe that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld count as "anti-establishment"?
Of course, we could also consider the Nixon Administration. Who had more experience than Richard Nixon? How'd that work out? What about George H.W. Bush? How did his administration do? What about Herbert Hoover who had vast experience both in terms of dealing with foreign countries during World War I and in terms of dealing with the U.S. economy as secretary of Commerce? How did he do? The truth is that Brooks's basic claim that experienced leaders are necessarily better than inexperienced leaders simply doesn't hold water.
Now let's look at the broader issue of elitism versus populism. For Brooks to be right, his elites have to make better policy judgments than average Americans. But he overlooks the fact that in America we have a particularly bad elite, an elite that holds most Americans in contempt and has no sympathy for the history and traditions that make us great. And that elite has been wrong on issue after issue for most of the last 40 years. Who was more right about the Soviet Union, the elites or the people? Who was more right about the need to cut taxes in the 1970s, the elites or the people? Who was more right about the need to get tough on crime, the elites in black robes with life tenure, or the folks cheering for Dirty Harry? Who would Brooks trust to decide critical issues regarding the War on Terror today, the voters or the inside-the-Beltway types who lose sleep over tough interrogation tactics? Elites particularly our American elite are much more likely to go for the latest fad, for seek to apply whatever notion is currently trendy in the salons of Europe. To find true Burkean conservatism in this country to find citizens who are both respectful of our country's traditions and anxious to see our country remain a world leader you have to turn to the voters.
The truth is that it is no longer possible to govern this country through a conservative elite. We have a radical elite, an elite that believes in climate change, gay marriage, unrestricted abortions, and the United Nations. We have an elite that intends to make massive, liberal changes to every aspect of American life. This elite ruins almost everything it touches from the schools, to the media, to the universities. Giving more power to the elites means watching the United States become more and more like Europe.
Populism rests on two great insights. First, it understands that the people (taken as a whole) are often wiser and more prudent than the elites. Average people are almost always respectful of tradition, while elites tend to act like an angry mob trying to tear down the old idols. Second, populism understands that it's not enough to actually have the right policy ideas, you have to have the will to take on the elites who will try to prevent those ideas from going into place. In order to get anything accomplished, the GOP is going to have to use public opinion to override the objections of liberals, including liberals in the media.
Does Sarah Palin have the political skills to successfully govern this country from a populist perspective? It's far too early to say. She is certainly the most promising such figure to come along since the elites were denouncing Ronald Reagan. And therefore we should all wish her well. It is silly to criticize her at this early stage until we know a lot more about her abilities as a leader. I am glad to say that her instincts appear to be sound.