The Magazine

A Guide to Elite Opinion

California's Prop. 8, Alaska's governor, and other abominations.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JEFFREY BELL
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The last thing conservatives should do is let themselves be drawn into a debate over her campaign, how it was handled, and whether it was a net plus or net minus for John McCain. In the end people's judgment about that won't matter unless Palin internalizes the attacks and retreats from national politics. So far she seems unlikely to draw such a conclusion, which is very worrisome to elite opinion.

The reason elite opinion makers are set on destroying her is fear. They sense that like Ronald Reagan, and unlike, say, Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, she really, genuinely doesn't care what they think, and for that reason is willing and able to go over their heads and make a strong, direct appeal to voters. Some of them may even remember that Ronald Reagan's negatives were as high as his positives in the polls as late as 10 days before he carried 44 states in 1980.

This is a time when elite opinion, including its conservative wing, is unanimous in wanting American politics to become a value-free zone in the image of Western Europe. A refusal to defer to elite opinion, the confidence that it can be overcome, may be the single most important quality in conservative politics.

Apart from this willingness to go against elite opinion, conservatives should stop asking themselves who, if anyone, is the new Reagan. That way lies madness. So far there isn't another Ronald Reagan. There may never be. Besides, most people (including his advisers) didn't know Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan until he was out of office.

What they should ask themselves instead is, can there be a conservative Barack Obama? That is, can a conservative presidential candidate be a dynamic speaker, draw huge crowds, go viral on the Internet, and launch a populist money machine capable of playing in the same league with Obama himself? (If not, if this proves to be something unique to the left, American conservatism may have a rather limited future.)

One of the key characteristics of elite opinion, particularly at times like the present when it has become so unanimous that it has forgotten what it is to have a real debate, is repetition of the claim that some issues are settled, or no longer subject to serious debate. The end of the debate on global warming. The end of the Reagan era. The end of neoconservatism. The end of social conservatism.

The end of Sarah Palin.

The one thing to be sure of is that as long as elite opinion keeps declaring that something has ended, it hasn't ended yet.

Jeffrey Bell, author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality (1992), is completing work on Social Conservatism: The Movement That Polarized American Politics. He is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.