reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
With the nation abuzz about presidential politics, HBO has added a colorful portrait to the political landscape with the film Game Change–the story of the vice presidential nomination of Sarah Palin in 2008, directed by Jay Roach and based on the book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Game Change reveals the inner-workings of the John McCain campaign in its selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, delving into the trials of chief campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who realizes far too late that he has failed to vet Sarah Palin before selecting her to be McCain’s running mate. Beyond this story of a campaign that has made a fatal mistake lies a powerful commentary on the appeal of ignorance in American populism and the dangers that this ignorance poses when empowered with the resources of a national political party. In his seminal 2010 interview with Anderson Cooper, Steve Schmidt regrets the forces he inadvertently unleashed by selecting Sarah Palin–forces which continue to harm the political landscape to this day.
So what exactly is it that was so dangerous about the selection of Sarah Palin to be the Republican vice presidential nominee? As Schmidt acknowledges, by doing so the political establishment endorsed the idea that Palin, and someone of her intelligence, was qualified for the job. They lowered the bar so low that it has opened the door for political candidates who lack the intellectual ability and the personal integrity to hold national political office. As Schmidt notes in his interview with Anderson Cooper, upon her nomination, Sarah Palin literally knew nothing about foreign policy, and among the many gaps in her knowledge cited by Game Change are the First and Second World Wars, the fact that the Queen does not run the British government, and the reason why North and South Korea are not the same country. Despite this lack of basic historical knowledge, Sarah Palin does not seem to think this should stop her from becoming vice president (or president), and sadly, neither does a large portion of the American electorate.
Even more troublesome, according to Schmidt, Sarah Palin was not only willing to lie to the American public in her pursuit of power, she wanted to propagate those views through national channels. In discussing this, Schmidt notably identifies Palin’s statement that an investigation into the Troopergate scandal had exonerated her of all wrong-doing (and her desire to issue an official campaign statement to that effect), when in fact the report concluded that Palin had “abused her power” (see page 67 of the report).
This willingness to distort the truth for political gain has sadly spread throughout populist circles and become a mainstay of Tea Party politics. As previously discussed in the Tea Party’s portrayal of Barack Obama’s health care policies as neo-Nazi, the Tea Party has shown a striking willingness to engage in semantic inversions in order to manipulate words and concepts in favor of their beliefs. This creates a layer of debate that is wholly divorced from the reality of what words and ideas actually mean. It is ignorance on parade in search of power.
As Steve Schmidt recently commented about Sarah Palin, “I think that she helped usher in an era of know-nothingness, and mainstreamed it in the Republican Party to the detriment of the conservative movement… And I think her nomination trivialized American politics, and had a lot of results that I’m not particularly comfortable with.”
We have seen this type of anti-facts politics blossom on Fox News in the musings of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Most recently, this arose in Fox News’ coverage of the nationwide denunciation of Rush Limbaugh’s abusive comments about women. Rather than engage in a discussion about the sexism of what Limbaugh had said and the explosion of anti-women’s health initiatives on the right (which have even been opposed by the National Federation of Republican Women), Fox instead used a tu quoque to portray itself as the great protector of women’s rights by attacking Bill Maher, who once called Sarah Palin a “c*nt.” As a result, Fox commentators have called on Barack Obama to return the $1 million Maher donated to his campaign. Again, this is the window-dressing of language ignoring the substance of an issue. Limbaugh was opposing a women’s health initiative, Maher was insulting a politician he does not like.
In fact, Fox has taken their offense-is-defense strategy to a more extreme level, accusing the left of “hate speech,” which again is another semantic inversion that belittles what hate speech entails, especially considering the fact that they never use this phrase when referring to Limbaugh’s statements. Fox News has also endorsed pejorative attacks on Obama as an anti-American, secret Muslim terrorist, which incidentally have their root in Sarah Palin’s “pallin’ around with terrorists” comment during the 2008 campaign.
What Steve Schmidt understands is that the McCain campaign inadvertently cultivated the basest elements of the Republican party by empowering Sarah Palin. They were empowering those people whose beliefs derive from religious superstition, who revile academic experts as politically motivated, and who are willing to ignore facts in order to gain power. Fox News misses this because they are in the business of selling a product, even if that product is a perverse form of populism. The willingness of the far right to revile those who have dedicated their lives to knowledge is especially troublesome and arrogant, and it could only come from someone who herself has never truly had to learn. As the saying goes, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Perhaps this is why the U.S. recently found itself in a dilemma of its own making, unable to raise the debt ceiling to pay its debts due to Tea Party extremists, who approach the national economy like a household budget. As a result, the United States had its credit rating lowered.
As the Republican primary has unfolded into a battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the Republican establishment has come face-to-face with the populist forces they unleashed in 2008. And like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum is a guardian of the ignorance which is demanding greater power in American politics. Even with the anti-intellectual rants of Santorum, the overarching theme of the Republican primary campaign still seems to be the ambivalence of the conservative voters to Mitt Romney, who nonetheless seems like an inevitability. That ambivalence may be a good omen for American politics–let’s hope things stay that way.