I thought that David Brooks' column on populism, elitism and Sarah Palin was quite good (even if I'm not sure my qualms about Palin's preparedness have been expressed strongly or frequently enough to merit my being placed on a list of Palin-skeptics that includes, say, a hardened doubter like David Frum). But I agree with Poulos that this Brooks line deserves to be unpacked a bit:
In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation's founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.
I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn't just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.
To which Poulos responds:
Regrettably, I have not an inkling of how Bush's management style embodied anti-establishmentarianism. Bush simply tried as hard as possible to ignore, brush off, and sideline criticism. It just so happened that the establishment media was one such source of criticism, and Paul O'Neill was another, and there are lots of examples to draw from of 'insidery' voices being silenced and establishment dissent frowned upon. But these things are like peas clustered at the base of a mountain of evidence that Bush had no problem at all with establishmentarianism so long as it suited his basic purposes. For every Scowcroft that was left out on the doorstep there was a Cheney given the run of the house. We can try as hard as we like to insist that cronyism, secrecy, and vindictiveness are anti-establishmentarian, but as a rule they are the products of establishments, and the pathologies of bureaucratic institutions.
Let me split the difference, and suggest that the Bush Administration has displayed a distinctive ability to merge the worst features of establishmentarian and anti-establishmentarian politics. Those establishment figures to whom Bush bent a ready ear - the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds, certain members of the military brass, etc. - were relied upon to the point of immense folly; meanwhile, any establishment figure, institution or organ that found itself outside the Bushian inner circle, and that offered criticism (constructive or otherwise), ended up ignored, attacked, or dismissed as out-of-touch. This "worst of both worlds" problem had something to do with Bush's own limitations as an executive, but I think it may also be a structural difficulty with anti-establishment politics in general: As a politician, you can run against the establishment all you want, but whether you're a traitor-to-your-class figure like Bush, or a more genuine outsider (like Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin), you're going to need to co-opt at least part of the establishment if you're going to actually govern. The danger, then, is what we saw with Bush: An overreliance on the establishment figures whom you've co-opted - or, just as likely, who've co-opted you - joined to a doubling-down on the hostility and suspicion you direct outward, toward the rest of the political, intellectual and media elite. (Which is a sobering thought, to say the least, for observers like myself, who are drawn to outsider candidates out of the belief that American politics - and especially conservative politics - needs to be dramatically shaken up.)
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