The Magazine

Why They Hate Her

Sarah Palin is a smart missile aimed at the heart of the left.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By JEFFREY BELL
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For months John McCain has apparently been hoping to use his selection of a running mate to shake up the presidential race. By picking Alaska governor Sarah Palin, McCain has accomplished that--and very likely a lot more than that, more than he or anyone else could have imagined.

I'm not talking about the widely remarked fact that if Palin performs well, and regardless of whether McCain wins or loses, she becomes a future Republican presidential prospect. Given the end of the remarkable 28-year run of the Bush family--present on six of the last seven GOP national tickets, a record that could stand forever--and McCain's own status as a pre-baby boomer, this was baked in the cake no matter what younger Republican politician McCain chose to elevate.

But even apart from its political implications, the rollout of the Sarah Palin vice presidential candidacy may be regarded decades from now as a nationally shared Rorschach test of enormous cultural significance.

From the instant of Palin's designation on Friday, August 29, the American left went into a collective mass seizure from which it shows no sign of emerging. The left blogosphere and elite media have, for the moment, joined forces and become indistinguishable from each other, and from the supermarket tabloids, in their desire to find and use anything that will criminalize and/or humiliate Palin and her family. In sharp contrast to the yearlong restraint shown toward truthful reports about John Edwards's affair, bizarre rumors have been reported as news, and, according to McCain campaign director Steve Schmidt, nationally known members of the elite media have besieged him with preposterous demands.

The most striking thing in purely political terms about this hurricane of elite rage is the built-in likelihood that it will backfire. It's not simply that it is highly capable of generating sympathy for Palin among puzzled undecided voters and of infuriating and motivating a previously placid GOP base, neither of which is in the interest of the Obama-Biden campaign. It also created an opening for Palin herself to look calm, composed, competent, and funny in response.

In her acceptance speech last Wednesday night, anyone could see the poise and skill that undoubtedly attracted McCain's attention months ago, when few others were even aware that he was looking. But it was precisely the venom of the left's assault that heightened the drama and made it a riveting television event. Palin benefited from her ability to project full awareness of the volume and relentlessness of the attacks without showing a scintilla of resentment or self-pity.

This is a rare talent, one shared by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. For this quality to have even a chance to develop, there must be something real to serve as an emotional backdrop: disproportionate, crazy-seeming rage by one's political enemies. Roosevelt was on his party's national ticket five times and Reagan sought the presidency four times. Each became governor of what at the time was the nation's most populous state. It took Roosevelt and Reagan decades of national prominence and pitched ideological combat to achieve the gift of enemies like these. Yet the American left awarded Sarah Palin this gift seemingly within a microsecond of her appearance on the national stage in Dayton, Ohio. Why?

The most important thing to know about the left today is that it is centered on social issues. At root, it always has been, ever since the movement took form and received its name in the revolutionary Paris of the 1790s. In order to drive toward a vision of true human liberation, all the institutions and moral codes we associate with civilization had to be torn down. The institutions targeted in revolutionary France included the monarchy and the nobility, but even higher on the enemies list of the Jacobins and their allies were organized religion and the family, institutions in which the moral values of traditional society could be preserved and passed on outside the control of the leftist vanguard.

Full human liberation always remained the ultimate vision of the left--Marx, for one, was explicit on this point--but the left in its more than 200-year history has been flexible and adaptable in the forms it was willing to assume and the projects it was willing to undertake in pursuit of its anti-institutional goals. For more than a hundred years, the central project of the global left was socialism.

It's hard to credit today, but as recently as the 1940s most Western political elites believed government ownership of business and national planning were the keys to economic modernization. Even when socialism's economic prestige was eroded by the West's capitalist boom after World War II, socialism retained credibility as a means of income redistribution.