Jonathan Zimmerman: Sarah Palin and the Assault on Merit

Roundup: Historians' Take

In the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls won six NBA championships. Their formula was simple: Michael Jordan plus a decent supporting cast equals victory. At the end of every game, the ball was in Jordan's hands. And the Bulls almost always came out on top.

Were the Bulls being "elitist" by channeling their entire offense through Michael Jordan? Of course they were. Jordan was the best basketball player on earth, plain and simple. He had won the right to carry the Bulls, and--even more--the Bulls needed him to do it. Anything less would have weakened their chances.

So there's nothing wrong with "elitism," per se, so long as it's based on merit. The problem arises when people become elites without earning it, by the luck of birth and wealth. Your station in life should reflect your skill and effort, not your inherited status.

Unless, of course, you want to be our vice president.

The nomination of Sarah Palin represents a direct and unprecedented assault on the American ideal of merit. Of course, Palin's handlers insist that she has the experience, talent, and ability to serve as the nation's second-in-command. Clearly, though, Palin was nominated because=2
0of who she is---a hockey mom, a hunter, and so on---rather than what she has done.

Would you select an accountant because his son plays hockey? Would you choose a doctor because she can kill a moose? I doubt it. But plenty of voters seem ready to make Sarah Palin their vice-president, simply because she seems to be like them.

To be sure, Americans have always wanted their leaders to possess a common touch. Abraham Lincoln split rails, after all, and Theodore Roosevelt went all the way to Africa to shoot lions. Heck, even President Bush wears cowboy boots and clears brush.

Most of this was political theater, of course, as Ivy-educated patricians like Roosevelt and Bush tried to affect a regular-guy demeanor. Americans have always suspected inherited wealth, and rightly so: it runs counter to the self-made ideal, whereby each of us rises or falls depending on individual ability, dedication, and persistence.

That's why Thomas Jefferson hoped that America would develop a "natural aristocracy," a new generation of talent to lead the new nation. Otherwise, he warned, we would be governed by "an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth." Better to be ruled by the gifted few, Jefferson wrote, than by the fortunate rich.

Since then, Americans have been arguing about which is which. How can you pick out the natural aristocrats among us? How many of them simply appear talented, because of their social a
dvantages? And how many poorer folk have the ability to rise to the top, if only they get a little break?

Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Harvard president James B. Conant thought he found the answer: standardized testing. As Conant well realized, many Harvard students got into the college solely because of their wealth or last name. The trick was to devise examinations that would separate people with true merit from those who simply had privilege. And so the Standardized Achievement Test was born.

We've had plenty of debate about that, too. What does this test really measure? How should it be weighed next to grades and other accomplishments? Does it discriminate against minorities?

The last question raises the specter of affirmative action, which has polarized our country for the past forty years. If a given group has suffered prejudice, some Americans argued, it should receive a special advantage in college admissions, job hires, and so on. Nonsense, said the other side: no matter what happened in the past, your future in life should never rest on the color of your skin.

But here's the larger point: in all of these debates, both sides embraced the idea of merit itself. The dispute lay in the measurement of ability, not in its significance. Nobody questioned whether skill matters, or whether society should recognize and reward it.

Nobody, that is, until this election cycle. In the smiling
face of Sarah Palin, we see something fresh and truly remarkable in American history: the anti-merit candidate.

Some people have gamely tried to depict Palin as a kind of Jeffersonian natural aristocrat, a sharp diamond plucked out of the Alaskan rough. More commonly, though, they have embraced her for her lack of special talent, ability, or knowledge. There's nothing special about Sarah Palin, and that's precisely what is so new--and so special--about her.

And that brings us back to "elitism," which Palin's defenders inevitably invoke whenever anyone questions her qualifications. The very charge shows how far we have strayed from the meritocratic ideal. It ignores the difference between deserved and undeserved elitism, suggesting that any claim to high status is somehow suspect. And it makes a mockery of our entire government, implying that anyone among us is good enough to lead it.

In one of his best-known quips, the conservative icon William F. Buckley said he would rather be governed by the first 300 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard University. In the end, though, Buckley didn't want either group in charge. He rejected the faculty's left-liberal politics, of course, but he also recoiled at the notion of any average Joe at the helm.

He was, in short, an elitist. And so am I. In a time of economic turmoil at home and enormous peril overseas, we need extraordinary—not 0Aordinary--leaders. Woe to America if we fall victim to the seduction of Sarah Palin, who tricks us into thinking that Everyman---or Everywoman---is good enough for us all.

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More Comments:

Lorraine Paul - 10/4/2008

It depends on your definition of 'elite'. The ruling-elite always gets 'things done' ALL of the time. Unfortunately, the 'things' are to their advantage and not for the benefit of the vast majority.

Lorraine Paul - 10/4/2008

I see you are living in Mr Mullinax's ideal world!~ Congratulations.

Lorraine Paul - 10/4/2008

I have never read a more ridiculous rebuttal.

In fact I wouldn't call it a rebuttal at all. It isn't even a defence of Sarah Palin.

It is a sneering piece of anti-intellectualism wrapped up in right-wing brow-beating.

"That she actually has those great political skills..." I laughed out loud when I read that. The woman couldn't answer the majority of the ridiculously easy questions that were asked.

Yes, it would be a hideous world without lots of would be a right-wing world of uneducated, non-thinking reality show watchers swallowing every lie told to them by someone with a pretty or handsome face in an acquiescent media!

In other words your world!!

Donald Wolberg - 10/3/2008

It is difficult to understand the love affair the wannabe elites, which Mr. Zimmerman seems to be, as they parade the hubris of politics and the politics of hubris as some sort of measure for who they think qualifies as a candidate for anything. Mr. Truman was amazingly non-elite; the man never went to college and was seen as a toof for the corrupt Missouri Democrat machine. Forever candid to a fault, and an iconoclast who like poker and bourbon after hours, Mr. Truman made the transition almost from a nobody rube to of tof the near great Presidents almost seamless. He would not have been on Mr. Zimmerman's team, unfortunately.
Teddy Roosevelt was a police chief in New York, a self-made war hero, and a hunter who clearly shot his quota of moose. A bullet in a President propelled him to near great, but Mr. Roosevelt was another iconoclast who despised the elite that Mr. Zimmerman touts (and seems to want to be part of) and more likely than not dragged horse dung into Whitehouse meetings. Mr. Rooselvelt used battleships and big sticks to protect and further American interests. He was no the sort of elite bargin away any principles that Mr. Zimmerman would feel elitely comfy with.

Ms Palin is a union member and she would be the first union member to become Vice President. Ms Palin is comfortable with non-elite folks and has a mighty approval rating of 86% while Congress has an approval rating near that of terminal illness. Ms Palin is the Chief Executive of a state so large in size, that there are only 18 foreign countries larger than Alaska/ Ms. Palin is the Chief Executive of a State 23 miles from Russia and on the border of Canada and she manages agreements with both countries. Ms. Palin is the Chief Executive of a state that speaks 25 different lanjuages, 23 of then native languages spoken by groups with which Ms Palin enforces treaties. Alaska has more natural resources than any other state and Ms Palin has protected them for the benefit of Alsaka's citizens and managed to send every Alaskan a check from oil royalties.

Her opponent, Mr. Biden,has never worked at a "job"--he has been in the Senate 36 years and managed never to pass a single substantive bill he authored. Mr. Biden is almost as old as Mr. McCain and has had two life-threatening brain ailmens and a life-threatening lug ailment. Mr. Biden is notable for his plagerizing a speech by Mr. Neal Kinnock, a foreign politician, as well as his talent for gaffs and misspeaks that are legion. He recent comment that Mr. Franklin Rooselvelt delivered his "we have nothing to fear.." speech over telvision was noted by even the biased Obamaite media, although it was ignored by Ms Couric, possibly because she also did understand that there was no television broadcasts across the nation when Mr. Roosevelt was President. Mr. Biden seems to have inflated other credentials that have been noted in the past. One wonders if these qualities are those that characterize the "elite" of Mr. Zimmerman.

Mr. Obama has a record fairly typical of a Chicago machine politician. He has had no real world experience and a marvelously blank record of non-accomplishment in the Senate. He has a very murky record of associations from "retired " terrorists such as Mr. Ayers to racist and very looney ministers such as Mr. Wright. Mr, Obama's associations with Mr. Resco, an admitted felon, as well as the culprits of the Fannie and freddie crisis make for difficult associations. Mr. Obama is more concerned with style than content, a common characteristic of elitists. Mr. Obama is concerned with the welfare of out nation but seems not to know how many states we have. He commented that he was not sure if he had visited, "57 of our 58 states." On another occaision he warned we need to, "do away with all forms of carbon." Although clearly not a chemist or energy expert, Mr Obama did admit to a lengthy association with alcohol, soft and hard drugs such as pot and cocaine in his formative years. One again must wonder if Mr. Obama meets the elitist bar set by Mr. Zimmerman.

Bryan Mullinax - 10/3/2008

Its always interesting how this experience thing gets spun. Is Sarah Palin presenting herself as an accountant or a doctor or a nuclear physicist? She's a politician. And what does America want from their politicans? Skill and experience.

Sort of like serving on the town council - taking on the incumbent mayor and beating him. Then challenging a 27 year incumbent governor and beating him in the primary and taking down the Democrat challenger to become Governor of the State. Experience and skill in taking on entrenched interests and breaking a logjam to get action underway on a natural gas pipeline that had been stuck for years.

Just how non-elite are you to be one of only 50 State Governors in the entire country? Just how scary is it to put yourself forward as a candidate, go out and meet people and present your ideas and then have to see the concrete results right there at the ballot box. Hard numbers you can't just wish away or develop new theories about nor have restated in such a way as to make the outcome come out the way you wish - eh professor?

It seems that there is huge resentment that based on her life experience, demonstrated ability, professed beliefs, personality and communication skills that people might decide she is the better candidate. Aside from demonstrated political ability, isn't this how Anmericans have always chosen their leaders? FDR wasn't some economic expert - but he had a great smile and a good voice on the radio and demonstrated political skill. Herbert Hoover had broad and deep experience in government and relief projects (saving Finland in WW I, etc.) but FDR killed him.

Is that why she scares you so much? That she actually has those great political skills, but doesn't believe as you want your politicians to think?

But take you argument about how you pick your accountant. So what do you do when you need an accountant? Do you just go to the yellow pages and pick the first guy you see with the Harvard Degree? Or do you go to your firends and business acquaintances and yes, even your hockey mom friends and ask for their recommendation? Just how does this process get you the absolutely most educated and experienced and elite accountant? Do you want an accountant who has a brand-new shiny degree from Yale or somebody who's done taxes for 20 years and survived actual IRS audits? If the elites are the only ones who should practice their professions - just why are there so many accountants? and lawyers? and professors? Shouldn't there be just one or two according to this line of thinking? Isn't having lots of History professors an assault on merit as well?

Of course, it would be a hideous world without lots of professors I'm sure. And this whole assault on merit argument is a straw man so you can act on your prejudices against Governor Palin.

Raul A Garcia - 9/30/2008

I actually enjoyed listening to Buckley's "Firing Line", while realizing that there is nothing shameful in working with your hands. Would some of our more recent vice presidential candidates qualify as extraordinary? By Buckley's same dictum, mediocrity may just get something fixed. The posturing and image-making of many "extraordinary" elites who do not actually get much done also is not desirable.