For the past 20 years, it has been a given that many conservatives are deeply embedded in Reagan Nostalgia, longing for a return in new guise of their erstwhile leader, the unassailable image of noble perfection, against whom all other men must fall short. But the revolt of a coterie on the right against Sarah Palin--who has the audacity to wink, to hunt moose, and to come from Alaska--suggests that these conservatives at least have a whole other model in mind.
They are the Fastidiocons--a small but vocal party of pundits and writers--who recoil in dismay from Alaska's tough governor, intellectually and socially fastidious to a fault. They prize courage and leadership less than nuance and subtlety. They love Ron, it seems, less than Adlai E. Stevenson, the mid-20th-century heartthrob of liberal Democrats, famous for inspiring millions and failing to win elections, the very model of eloquent loserdom. As time went on, and Democrats drifted closer to pacifism, conservatives have paid nostalgic tribute to the foreign policy toughness of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. But Adlai Stevenson? Who ever dreamed they'd be madly for him?
Adlai, who looked down on Ike and John Kennedy, would doubtless have joined in the cry against Palin, as would his heir, Gene McCarthy, who looked down in his turn on Kennedy's brother, and indeed upon most of the world. This sort of thing gets you far with the Democrats, who run very well in college towns and with the chattering classes, (though in the case of these candidates, not quite far enough). These are the Fastidiocrats, (as opposed to the more 'bitter' Hillary voters), who specialize in the agreeable things that don't matter, at least not in the tough outside world. They have eloquence, with the right references to all the right books. They have that old code word, "intellectual curiosity," a trait found in pundits and students and the underemployed of all classes, who have the spare time and energy to mull over the cosmos, and found much less often in grownups who have real jobs in real venues, who tend to exhaust themselves in real work.
Michael Novak, whose intellectual cred far outruns those of all the Adlaicons put together, suggests that the Fastidiocons are so used to debating the Fastidiocrats that they "understand the maturity, sophistication, and rationalization of their own world better than the simpler but truer instincts of most of America." Novak finds these instincts in Palin--the same guts, the same moral courage, and the same common sense. There is also some backing from liberal pundit Lawrence O'Donnell, who notes that all governors hit the national scene less than well schooled in defense and diplomacy and that Palin learns fast.
No one did "maturity, sophistication, and rationalization" better than Adlai Stevenson or Gene McCarthy, but it turned out this was all they could do. The instincts and guts were beyond them, as was the sense of the nation. It was Michael Barone in his book Our Country who called Adlai out as a fraud. "He was an indifferent student and less than an omnivorous reader. . . . His ideas, like those of most politicians, were derivative. . . . Stevenson himself was not much of an intellectual. . . . If Eisenhower's taste in books ran to westerns, Stevenson did not seem to read books at all." Eisenhower's credentials were much more impressive, and Kennedy read more widely and deeply. When Stevenson died in 1964, the Social Register was the only book found by his bed.
Stevenson's appeal, Barone says, was "his attitude--his irony, his skepticism, his critical detachment from the roaring course of American life." It is Palin's being right in the thick of that roaring course--as a mother of five and moose huntress--that so appalls the fastidious, as it would have in the mid-1950's, and so does today. Stevenson died disappointed and bitter, convinced he had been treated badly by the country, which was too crude to elect him, and by Kennedy, who disliked him, with reason. Too bad: If he had hung in 50 years more and then changed his party, he might have found himself perfectly at home among the elitist Republicans. Who would have thought?
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.