Sarah Palin and the Assault on Merit
by Jonathan Zimmerman — September 22, 2008
This commentary argues that the nomination of Sarah Palin represents a direct attack on long-standing ideals of merit in American history.
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 of 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 advantages? 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 ordinary--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.
Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 22, 2008
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15383, Date Accessed: 9/26/2008 8:39:40 PM
New York University
JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press).