Now, I really, really, really hadn’t intended to post anything on Palin. I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been said. And most of what has been said would have been better unsaid: the delight in speculation without the slightest basis in evidence is among the worst tendencies of the postmodern commentariat. But an interesting, if rather “meta” discussion, has sprung up in response to Ross Douthat’s New York Times column on Sunday. I think I can contribute something to that.
Palins 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 . . . .All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palins gender and her social class.
And it has attracted mostly critical responses from bloggers, who have pointed out that the Palins are actually a lot richer than they choose to let on—certainly much more so than many of the ex-Governor’s supporters.
I’m going to leave aside the issue of what this means about Palin’s self-presentation—and about the so-called base of the GOP. Rather, I want to suggest that the conceptual vocabulary Douthat invokes, and that’s picked up by his critics, is inappropriate to the task. The issue here is not class , in the sense of a social group with distinctive economic, attitudinal, and cultural characteristics that persist through time. It’s status , which is acquired by individuals, and is difficult to transmit through the generations.
My objections are inspired by the great sociologist Robert Nisbet. Exactly fifty years ago, Nisbet argued that the concept of class could no longer be applied with any accuracy to America life. The reason, to make a long story short, is that the sociologists who developed the concept used the British landed aristocracy as their model. And, after World War II, there was simply nothing in this country to resemble a group that was not only closed to outsiders, but whose members were immediately distinguishable by speech, dress, and manner from the rest of the population. Certain vestiges of class, Nisbet admitted, might remain in the Northeast and parts of South. But he suggests, I think accurately, that there was little reason to think these could long survive.
For as Nisbet points out the really important thing about class is that group membership was by itself a sufficient condition of a certain degree of influence. When you’re part of a real class, your social and political influence is acquired in virtue of who you are, independently of anything you happen to do. Being invited (or not) to parties may be personally satisfying (or distressing). But once it’s severed from any real power, it loses its interest to any but snobs.
Status works differently. It has to be acquired by more or less arduous effort, and is enjoyed only by the individual and perhaps his or her immediate family. Status is the “meritocratic” replacement for class. It’s precisely because the class system has been so thoroughly effaced that sorting by education has become so so socially important.
Critics of this argument, including Douthat , often point out that status has a way of becoming a proxy for class. Thus the children of people who’ve achieved high status are much more likely to go to Harvard or Yale than, say, the sons of Kenyan goatherders—and more likely to situate themselves properly for further status acquisition by making the right contacts, etc. But the fact that they have to do so—and that getting in requires that kids run an unspeakable gantlet of tests, teams, and internships—only shows how little class in the proper sense is worth these days.
In my view, this means that the distinction between “democratic” and “meritocratic” ideals is badly drawn. Instead, we should talk about the clash between those who accept conventional status markers and those who question them. Each position can been seen as both democratic and meritocratic insofar as it thinks that social influence and dignity should be “earned”. But they disagree about whether fancy degrees, world travel, and certain kind of rhetorical fluency reflect merit—as opposed to, say, success in business or raising a thriving family. Probably, there’s something to be said for both views. But Douthat’s implicit approval of the “ideal” that just anyone should be able to become president? That’s American Leninism.