Sarah Palin and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

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Conservatives may have ruined the former Alaska governor by demanding too little of her

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In Joshua Green's June Atlantic piece on Sarah Palin, a retelling of the former Alaska governor's accomplishments prompts these questions: "How did someone who so effectively dealt with the two great issues vexing Alaska fall from grace so quickly? Anyone looking back at her record can't help but wonder: How did a popular, reformist governor beloved by Democrats come to embody right-wing resentment?"

Green concludes that "the qualities that brought her original successes -- the relentlessness, the impulse to settle scores -- weren't nearly so admirable when deployed against less worthy foes" than corrupt members of the Alaska establishment. That's astute. But I wonder if another contributing factor wasn't as important. As governor, Palin was playing to voters who demanded results as a condition of their support. As soon as she took the national stage, however, she received effusive praise whether she performed capably, as during her GOP convention speech, or poorly, as she did during interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson. To borrow a phrase, you might say she fell victim to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Whereas Alaskans rewarded substantive effectiveness, outlets like Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard behaved as if firing up the base was enough. Had Palin's supporters demanded more -- more knowledge, more polish, more steadiness, more policy substance, more effort reaching beyond a base of support far too small to win any election -- perhaps she would've worked harder to improve her uneven politicking.

Instead, the longtime pathologies and weaknesses of Sarah Palin are still with us. It's been three years since she stumbled over Katie Couric's question about what she typically reads. In its aftermath, much of the conservative media was complicit in permitting her the excuse that it was a gotcha question by the "lamestream media." So no surprise that Sarah Palin is now claiming, after a questionable statement about Paul Revere's midnight ride, that the media is to blame. "A shout out, gotcha kind of question was asked of me," she said. Here is the actual question she was asked: "What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?"

Gotcha!

Palin bears ultimate responsibility. A more mature politician who learned from mistakes would understand that an off-the-cuff misstatement is perfectly normal and inconsequential, whereas complaining about the world's most innocuous question makes you look insecure, petty and ridiculous to everyone save your apologists. Far harder to learn from mistakes, however, when amid a lost election, public missteps, and tanking popularity, intelligent ideological allies do nothing but make excuses, going so far as to write a book positing that among all politicians you're uniquely persecuted.

When there's an ideological bubble inside which conservative pols can reach their supporters, boost their egos, and earn millions of dollars by returning the favor of uncritical flattery, why would they bother to engage with the outside world? Despite the success of Fox News, right-leaning Web sites, and talk radio, many conservatives still behave as if they're at a perpetual disadvantage in the mass media, and that they're therefore justified in putting tribal loyalties before all else. Defending every perceived slight results in more news cycles won, higher ratings, and more lucrative book contracts. It is, however, corrosive in the long term. It is in the DNA of politicians to pander. They do the bare minimum to accrue supporters and no more than is necessary to keep them. On the strength of folksy charm and a facility for driving liberals crazy, Sarah Palin gave Rich Lowry starbursts, got a multimillion dollar pundit deal from Roger Ailes, and persuaded Mark Levin that she's a credible presidential candidate. Really guys?

Don't settle, you deserve better!

Even if conservative tastemakers had demanded more of Palin from the beginning, she wouldn't be presidential material. Few pols are. But she'd probably be more self-aware, more knowledgeable, more polished, and less erratic. She's smart and ambitious, after all. Why wouldn't she work harder and rein in her worst qualities if the golden ticket of conservative-movement affection required it? It's time that the right stop coddling its rising stars like trust-fund brats who are bailed out of trouble and assured at every opportunity that it's someone else's fault anytime something goes wrong. What do Paris Hilton and Palin have in common? The privilege and burden of knowing that even if they accomplish nothing of significance for the rest of their lives, they'll stay rich.

It shows.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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