Friday, 7 January 2011

America by Heart, Sarah Palin

This is Sarah Palin's pitch to become President of the United States.  It is very right-wing, fairly predictable, and not as bad as I'd expected it to be.

The book is a collection of opinions, personal reflections and occasional digs at Obama and the Democrats, combined with quotations from books, speeches, songs and email circulars which have caught her liking.  Much of it is middlebrow, some of it is fairly intellectual, and some of it is populist drivel.  She quotes everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Margaret Thatcher to FDR to Antonin Scalia to Calvin Coolidge to Martin Luther King.

Palin's worldview can be summed up quite simply.  The United States of America is a unique and exceptional nation.  It has had its faults, of course, like the evil of slavery, but it is nevertheless a formidable force for good in the world.  Its founding documents and constitution are charters for human freedom.  This freedom ultimately comes from God, and Americans have always been a religious people, albeit they have the right to adhere to any religion or to none.  The dark side (which isn't emphasised too much) is that traditional American freedoms and the constitution are under threat from liberals who are ashamed of their country, disdainful of religious faith, scornful of the American tradition of hard work and meritocracy, and bent on saddling their children and grandchildren with huge public debts.

Some of Palin's ideas are in principle unobjectionable, even to a liberal like me.  The demagoguery isn't as bad as it could be.  But her outlook is too one-sided to be taken seriously.  Her ideas about economics seem to be somewhere to the right of Herbert Hoover.  We've tried this stuff before, and it didn't work.  She correctly argues that a woman doesn't have to be left-wing to be a feminist, but she shows no awareness that her natural political constituency includes some of the most misogynistic bigots in American society.  She makes some justified criticisms of the self-indulgence of Generation Y and the shallowness of TV talent shows, but she blames such things not on the comfortable prosperity of western nations or on the ethic of consumerism, but on her liberal political opponents.  She pays tribute to American soldiers (of whom her son Track is one), but she doesn't really explore why they end up being sent into battle by hard-faced men in Washington.  Of course, one doesn't expect an even-handed treatment of political issues in a pre-presidential book, but there are limits.  The contrast with Obama's The Audacity of Hope is telling.

The book's dominant motif is American nationalism (or patriotism, to use a gentler term).  Palin attacks Obama's well-publicised statement that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.  This is a quote that is usually taken out of context, but even on the face of it it's not an unreasonable comment.  If Palin had been born in, say, Liechtenstein or Guyana, it's a fair bet that she'd be a hardcore Liechtenstinian or Guayanan nationalist.  Moreover, while it would be immodest to list Britain's contributions to world civilisation (think: what language is Palin writing in?), I'd say that, in the case of Greece, there's something fairly exceptional about a nation that invented democracy and gave us the western tradition of philosophy, literature, art and mathematics.  Palin herself quotes Plato.

All the same, Palin does have a point.  America is exceptional, and not just in terms of economic power or brute military force.  The United States has some genuinely admirable chapters in its history, and there are aspects of American life that set a great example to the world.  Many of my more enthusiastically anti-American colleagues on the European left are really going to miss old Sarah and her friends when China becomes top nation.  Still, there is another side to the story.  If you want an unflinching look at American foreign policy, or at the social and economic injustice in American society, or at the treatment of minorities, this book is not the place to go.

Palin's blinkeredness is also evident in her attitude to America's founding texts.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are fine documents drafted by gifted men who were inspired by noble ideals (though a Brit might think that the Founders would have done better to choose a parliamentary rather than a presidential system).  The fact that they created a representative democracy with free speech and free elections has effectively inoculated the American far right against fascism.  But they are functional legal documents, not sacred scriptures.  They were negotiated among men with their own political agendas in the historical circumstances of 1776 and 1787.  Palin herself acknowledges that the contemporary reality of slavery was written into the constitution, with its implicit definition of slaves as three-fifths of a human being.

Palin describes her credo as "commonsense constitutional conservatism".  Given that her agenda is regarded by many - most - of her fellow Americans as unelectably extreme, calling it "commonsense" is a bit cheeky.  But calling it "constitutional" is perhaps worse, and historically illiterate.  The US constitution gives no warrant for many of the planks in the Palin platform.  Palin warmly supports present-day industrial capitalism, but the constitution was designed to govern a relatively small agrarian society with an utterly different economic structure.  She is pro-life, but abortion in the 1700s was lightly regulated and legal. She is anti-government, but the Founders' desire to keep the federal government weak was conditioned by a desire to preserve the competing governmental authority of the states.  Like it or not, the constitution is far from being a charter for the ideology of the modern-day American hard right.  In truth, conservatives and liberals both interpret the constitution in the light of their own times and beliefs, but at least liberals are honest about it.

There are other blind spots too.  Palin promotes an admirable ethic of work and personal responsibility, but the actual consequences of her hyper-free-market brand of capitalism are that the wealth created by ordinary people's hard work is retained very disproportionately at the higher levels of the food chain, while the level of social mobility required to reach those levels is lower than in welfare-state Europe.  Social injustice will never be eradicated, but the evidence shows that it can be lessened by progressive fiscal policies, appropriate state funding of education and healthcare, and responsible private sector trade unions.  One suspects that Palin would equate this modest European brand of left-leaning capitalism, which serves hundreds of millions of people perfectly well, with semi-Soviet socialist tyranny.

In general, economic and social policy is not Palin's strongest suit.  Her criticism of Obamacare is insubstantial.  Her attempt to make populist attacks on big business while defending true freemarket capitalism is incoherent.  She seems to have no grasp of how the United States got into its current economic hole.  The reason why Palin has a cat in hell's chance of walking into the Oval Office in January 2013 is that the American economy has just passed through a brutal recession and too many voters have lost faith in establishment politicians.  But the recession wasn't caused by limp-wristed, anti-American, terrorist-loving, pro-abortion liberals.  It was the direct result of a systemic crisis in a thoroughly capitalist financial system which the Republicans had been striving to deregulate even further.  True, Obama has failed to repair most of the damage, but then Obama isn't Superman, and even Superman didn't have to contend with the Senate filibuster.  As for the bailouts of Wall Street and the car industry, those were Bush's babies and were supported at the time by one S.Palin.

Interestingly, Palin experiments with anti-Republican, they're-all-as-bad-as-each-other rhetoric.  "Some say", she writes, "we don't actually have a two-party system, that each party is the party of big government, with a Republican wing that likes wars, deficits, and assaults on civil liberties, and a Democrat wing that likes welfare, taxes, and assaults on commercial laissez-faire".  Palin think that there is "some truth to this idea".  She is too socially conservative to be a libertarian, but she is not above attacking the Republican Party from the right.  "Democrats", she complains, "are driving the country toward socialism at a hundred miles per hour, while the Republicans are driving at only fifty".

If this book was merely an ex-governor's commonplace book of patriotism, it might suffice as (say) a birthday present for a diehard Republican aunt.  The politics, however, give it a less comfortable edge.  It will no doubt be enjoyed and even learnt from by readers who actually believe that the Republican Party is driving the United States towards socialism at fifty miles per hour.  Anyone else, however, would be well advised to give it a miss.