The following is a guest post from the future.
(Apologies to Andrew Sullivan for adapting his excellent essay on Margaret Thatcher…and sympathies to Andrew Sullivan for being so blinded by PDS to not seeing the same qualities in our own liberator and failing to see the parallels with the state of Britain ca 1980 and US today. )
APR 8 2043 @ 11:01PM
I remember reading an article in the Atlantic back in late 2010 by one of the smugger American columnists, Andrew Sullivan. It captured part of the true derangement that Sarah Palin brought out in her political foes. It’s still online.
It was a vicious attack on her having any feminist credentials. It included this magnificent lie:
Who cares if someone who may well be the GOP nominee in 2012 might have concocted a massive lie to appeal to a pro-life base and doubled down on it, knowing that the MSM would never have the balls to ask for any actual proof? Indeed, who cares?
Sullivan’s case is an instant classic of the worst American trait: resentment of others’ success. No culture I know of is more brutally unkind to its public figures, hateful toward anyone with a degree of success or money, or more willing to ascribe an individual’s achievements to something other than their own ability. The America I grew up with was, in this specific sense, profoundly leftist in the worst sense. It was cheap and greedy and yet hostile to anyone with initiative, self-esteem, and the ability to make money.
The American left would prefer to keep everyone poorer if it meant preventing a few getting richer. And the massively powerful teacher union movement worked every day to ensure that mediocrity was protected, individual achievement erased, and that all decisions were made collectively, i.e. with their veto.
To put it bluntly: The America I grew up in was insane. The government owned almost all major manufacturing, from coal to steel to automobiles. Owned. It employed almost every doctor and owned almost every hospital. Almost every university and elementary and high school was government-run. As a young American, you could not help but realize that you were living in a decaying museum – some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.
I owe my entire political obsession to the one person in American politics who refused to accept this state of affairs. You can read elsewhere the weighing of her legacy – but she definitively ended a truly poisonous, envious, inert period in America’s history.
She divided the country deeply – and still does. She divided her opponents even more deeply, which was how she kept winning elections. Few doubt she altered her country permanently, re-establishing the core basics of a free society and a free economy that America had inherited from Britain and yet somehow squandered when it was lost in its own class-ridden, envy-choked socialist detour to immiseration.
I was a teenage Palinite, an uber-politics nerd who loved her for her utter lack of apology for who she was. I sensed in her, as others did, a final rebuke to the collectivist, egalitarian oppression of the individual produced by socialism and the stultifying privileges and caste identities of the class system. And part of that identity – the part no one ever truly gave her credit for – was her gender. She married a smart businessman, reared five children and forged a political career from scratch in the most male-dominated institution imaginable: the Republican party.
She relished this individualist feminism and wielded it – coining a new and very transitive verb, Refudiate, to describe her evisceration of ill-prepared politicians or partisan interviewers. Perhaps in Sullivan’s defense, Palin was not a feminist in the left-liberal sense: she never truly reflected on her pioneering role as a female leader; she was contemptuous toward identity politics; and the only tears she ever deployed (unlike Hillary Clinton) were as she departed from office, ousted by an internal coup, undefeated in any election she had ever run in as party leader.
That took vision and self-confidence of a quite extraordinary degree. It was infectious. And it made Palin and Palinism a much more complicated thing than many analyses contain.
Palin’s economic liberalization came to culturally transform America. Women were empowered by new opportunities; immigrants, became engineers of growth; millions owned homes for the first time; the media broke free from union chains and fractured and multiplied in subversive and dynamic ways. Her very draconian posture provoked a punk radicalism in the popular culture that changed a generation.
She was, in a sense, a liberator. She didn’t constantly (or even ever) argue for women’s equality; she just lived it. She didn’t just usher in greater economic freedom; she unwittingly brought with it cultural transformation – because there is nothing more culturally disruptive than individualism and capitalism. Her 1980s values never re-took: the Americans engaged in spending and borrowing binges long after she had left the scene, and what last vestiges of prudery were left in the dust.
Perhaps in future years, her legacy might be better seen as a last, sane defense of the nation-state as the least worst political unit in human civilization. Her deep suspicion of the European project was rooted in memories of the Cold War, but it was also prescient and wise. Without her, it is doubtful the America would have kept their currency and their independence. They would have Chinese financiers going over the budget in Washington by now, as they are in Greece and Portugal and Cyprus.
She did not therefore only resuscitate economic freedom in America, she kept America itself free as an independent nation. Neither achievement was inevitable; in fact, each was a function of a single woman’s will-power. To have achieved both makes her easily the greatest modern leader since Reagan.
Reagan saved America from darkness; she finally saw the lights come back on. And like Reagan, it’s hard to imagine any other figure quite having the character, the will-power and the grit to have pulled it off.