A dangerous divide has been developing for some years in America, between those who are comfortable negotiating the wide array of knowledge and information sources now available, and those who are not. It is in many aspects a class divide, one side characterized by wealth, professional degrees, security and complacency, the other by shrinking incomes and high credit card debt, anxiety about the future, and anger at those in power.
One U.S. Senator, Jim Webb of Virginia, recently called this America’s greatest present danger, more potent than our international entanglements, the financial crisis, health care, energy or environment. The “tea party” protests over health care and immigration policy are one manifestation of that divide. Another, related, is the current response to Sarah Palin.
Palin has become the champion of a new wave of populism. People attracted to her are outraged over federal bailouts for Wall Street bankers, resentful of benefits accorded illegal immigrants, incensed over the notion of federally funded abortions, and perhaps most disturbing, suspicious of education. A fairly consistent analysis of the Palin phenomenon concludes that she is the happy beneficiary of this protest coalition, having happened into her celebrity role by the accident of timing, a willing but passive instrument. But her willing embrace of the role of symbolic embodiment of protest makes her as much a generator as recipient of it.
Populist protest is nothing new in America. Andrew Jackson quite deliberately created the first wave of popular anger at elite power in our political history and rode it successfully into the presidency before the Civil War. Later, William Jennings Bryan captured the wrath of farmers and small merchants displaced and disadvantaged by emerging industrialism at the end of the nineteenth century, running as the standard-bearer of both the Democrat and Peoples’ Parties. But industrialization had benefited too many people, and the reforms he advanced seemed too threatening to a majority of the electorate. Franklin Roosevelt organized populist anxiety over the future of the American economy into an electoral coalition that carried him through four successful elections, and saved capitalism in the offing. The civil rights movement of the 1960s proved too potent for John Kennedy to ignore, hard though he tried initially, and by embracing it he became one of its heroes.
These are populist success stories, even Bryan’s, for much of the reform the Peoples’ Party advocated was realized in the Progressive Era. But populist protest has succeeded only when it has offered a positive program and enjoyed effective leadership. Without these, it has faltered and dissipated. It seems unlikely that Palin, having abdicated as governor, will be able to provide operative direction for the current movement.
While the present tea party unrest follows somewhat this long populist tradition, it is unusual in at least one respect: distrust of education.
Though in her book Palin explains that her college journey was interrupted frequently because she had to work to earn her tuition, at other times she has disparaged education. Her poor showing in the Katie Couric interview and her manifest disinterest in the details of governance suggest someone for whom information is not important. In the election campaign and on her book tour Palin has represented herself as ordinary, a person whose values come from the cultural experience of hard-working, Christian common folk who regard more than rudimentary schooling as unnecessary. There is more than a hint of anti-intellectualism in her message and her demeanor. Impatience with critical analysis and appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of reality is characteristic of many of the faithful attracted to her rallies and book-signings.
Throughout American history education has been understood as a pathway to economic advance, responsible citizenship and human fulfillment. But that assumption is subject to considerable challenge today. Yet it is still true that high school and college completion leads to higher lifetime earning. And the disadvantaged sense the truth that their powerlessness corresponds to their failure to understand government and other power structures. Thus, as Palin’s populism encourages anti-intellectualism, it represents a significant disservice to the very people she purports to champion. It’s a disservice that’s a danger for them, and for American society.
Anchorage Daily News