What The Right Means When They Say "America"

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UPDATE: Several posters have pointed out the distinction between the meritocratic and democratic ideal. I have conflated the two, and thus portions of this are wrong. Having thought on that fact though, I still can't bring myself to see Palin is one or Obama as the other. Perhaps this is my color barrier, but the promise of more "democratic" America never meant, to me, black people, their actual knowledge of the world be damned. It meant a fair shot.

That said, Ross is owed an apology--conflating the two changes the meaning. There is more here. But I want to think on it some more.

I need to quote at length from Ross's column today:

Palin's popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal -- that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal -- that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It's been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she's botched an essential democratic role -- the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it's also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You'll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You'll endure gibes about your "slutty" looks and your "white trash concupiscence," while a prominent female academic declares that your "greatest hypocrisy" is the "pretense" that you're a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don't even think about it.

There is in this critique, a kind of Al Sharpton analysis--Sarah Palin as a stand-in for all of her social class. Ross contends that her failures are not her own, but somehow the failures that would afflict anyone else presumably from her "social class." But this only works if you think that most of working class America is as fucking inept as Sarah Palin.

There is more to be said about that, but I'd like to move to something more important--that being Ross's definition of "Anyone."

In the last ten months, we've seen the son of a single mother, son of an immigrant, roots in Kansas, roots in the quintessentially American South Side of Chicago, standing for the "traditional values" of family, and the lesson we take from this is is that American meritocracy is broken.

Conservative condescension toward working class America, works in tandem with racial blindness. I have tried, through a few re-readings, to avoid seeing that in Ross's column. But it's very difficult to process the notion that Sarah Palin is a better model of the all-American meritocratic ideal than Barack Obama, without believing that that judgment hinges on race.

My black readers are laughing at me. Again.

I would like to see Ross's point another way. But I can't escape the fact that, at this very moment, there are two young girls living in the White House. In their veins, they have the blood of men who fought in World War II. They have the blood of women who fled the Aparthied South, made something of themselves, and helped build one of the country's great neighborhoods.

Yet, in these times, having come this far, at this moment, we are told that the meritocratic ideal is broken. And, seemingly, it would be fixed by offering a candidate, who can't name a single newspaper she reads, access to the nuclear launch codes. In that context, one wonders at what precise point, meritocracy worked? And then I recoil at the answer...

I don't know what to say here. There's a direct line from this sort of thinking, to the idea that Sotomayor isn't qualified to the risible notion that whites (of a certain "social class") are being herded into Jim Crow. Race is all around us. I'm actually shocked when it crops up. And then I'm shocked that I'm shocked. And then I'm fearful that a day is coming when I won't be shocked at all, when I'll just expect it.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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