September 18, 2008
Reactions to Governor Palin’s selection as Senator McCain’s running mate ranged from laughter to incredulity and then from alarm to panic. Indeed, editorials on the danger she poses to Senator Obama’s once inevitable coronation in November now radiate furrowed brows and nail-chewing anxiety among those on the political left. The reason is that Sarah Palin constitutes an existential threat to an ideological narrative that has animated the Democratic Party for about the last century.
It goes something like this: From the 1890s through the Wilson administration in the 1910s, members of the Progressive movement worked diligently against entrenched interests on behalf of ordinary individuals and instituted such reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall, along with other measures that genuinely improved the lives of Americans. Many progressives knew what they were talking about either because, like Jane Addams, they worked with the downtrodden themselves, or like others, had experienced personal traumas that burned empathy into their souls, such as Teddy Roosevelt. Progressives worked to reform municipalities, state governments, and Washington, D.C. Regular folks benefited, and a narrative was advanced: promoting democracy with expert guidance—in independent commissions, boards, and so forth—is the engine of material and moral progress.
The New Deal continued this story, regardless of FDR’s more absurd forays into collectivism, such as the National Recovery Administration. The Supreme Court demolished this effort in the appropriately named “sick chicken” case, and otherwise held sentinel over the administration’s adventures in economic wonderland, until Roosevelt’s effort to pack the institution cowed it into submission. Scholarly consensus about his two terms has been that though New Deal programs did not bring America out of the Great Depression—indeed, may have prolonged it—government efforts did help many millions of victims of Federal Reserve meddling during the 1920s and President Hoover’s ineffectual policies in the early 1930s. FDR was a Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian, in that he applied Hamiltonian means—powerful central government—to achieve Jeffersonian ends—better lives for ordinary people. Call this progressive liberalism, a tradition that became so dominant and prestigious that it swept aside all competitors, leading to postwar commentary about the “end of ideology.” The progressive-liberal narrative seemed inevitable and unstoppable.
That is, until the '60s. The countercultural revolution strove to demolish the old order and substitute it with what James Piereson calls “punitive liberalism.” Radicals were defined less by what they favored than by what they despised, which included traditional marriage, family, religion, love of country, and perhaps most of all, the progressive-liberal narrative, which was condemned as sexist, racist, imperialist or just plain boring. Multiculturalism supplanted patriotism and American exceptionalism; feminism and environmentalism filled in other gaps. Progressive liberals bequeathed the FDA and the GI Bill. Sixties illiberals have given us censorship, moral relativism, anti-Americanism, and no drilling—anything to punish the folks.
For all that, a pretence of the progressive narrative remains—the part about big, activist government—but its core is hollow or meretricious, as evidenced by Senator Obama’s dismissive comments about rural Pennsylvanians “clinging” to their guns and religion. Like Dracula, the narrative faced the danger that someday someone would drive a wooden stake through what remains of its heart and kill it off once and forever.
Enter, stage right, Sarah Palin. Certainly her opponents fear what the governor can do, but more importantly are terrified about what she represents. Alaska’s moose-hunting chief executive stands for what liberalism still imagines itself to be, and that is a movement and governing ideology that genuinely represents ordinary people, especially women and minorities. But just when members of the party’s encrusted feminocracy were celebrating their womanhood by bragging about how many abortions they’ve legalized, they hear the throaty rumble of a Harley-Davidson sporting a lady with a rifle in one hand, a baby in the other, and running the state of Alaska with an 80-something-percent approval rating. Talk about worse than having a bad hair day.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Governor Palin has inaugurated, probably unintentionally, a new narrative in American politics. Call it Pit Bull Progressivism, which represents everything progressive liberals have forgotten or about which they have become contemptuous—traditional motherhood, family, love of country, individualism, personal responsibility—the list goes on. Most of all she represents the courage of regular Americans who never heard of arugula but know a phony when they see one.
Which means, look out, Democrats: the image you see in your rearview mirror is not a hoard of worshipping followers, but a pit bull. With lipstick.
Marvin Folkertsma, Ph.D. is a professor of political science and fellow for American Studies with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is the author of several books. His latest release is a high-energy novel titled The Thirteenth Commandment.