Sarah Palin is one of the most intriguing (and polarizing) personalities to emerge on the national political stage in a long time. The way that many conservatives embrace her and many liberals vilify her illustrates in microcosm the yawning political divide in America today.
We can draw insights about Palin's significance in America today from a trio of markedly disparate historical figures: Ronald Reagan, the late Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and the Gospel of Matthew's King Herod. The connection between Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan is fairly simple and straightforward. They share conservative convictions and a special gift of communication. Palin is reminiscent of Reagan in the way she resonates, inspires, and energizes conservatives.
Less apparent are the links that may be drawn between Palin and the long-departed Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and Palin and the much-longer-ago-departed King Herod.
The connection between Palin and Mises occurred to me while rereading Mises' 1944 book Bureaucracy. Mises wrote, "[T]he educated strata are more gullible than the less educated. The most enthusiastic supporters of Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism were the intellectuals, not the boors." Indeed, Marx, Lenin, et al. were intellectuals, and the leaders of socialism have been relatively well-to-do, educated folks like Bill Ayers, not salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar folks.
Mises continued this insight with a penetrating passage that is uncannily relevant today:
The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent upon abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make the government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office.
And what is the antidote to the grim utopian schemes of leftist intellectuals and politicians? According to Mises, "Just common sense is needed to prevent man from falling prey to illusory fantasies and empty catchwords." In other words, people as down-to-earth and common-sensical as Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin.
Indeed, the fury directed against Palin by leftists is so overwrought, and at times maniacal, precisely because her innate common sense is so powerful and effective when she dares to declare that the emperor of government economic planning has no clothes. Like Mises and Reagan, Palin understands with utter (and to leftists, frightening) clarity that leftist utopias have no practicality or viability, but are, in Mises' words, "illusory fantasies."
Like most people, self-important intellectuals don't like their cherished dreams and aspirations dismissed as fantasies. What really agitates them, though, is that they remember how effective that attractive, winsome fellow from non-elite Eureka College was in explaining how counterproductive, inefficient, and ultimately destructive Big Government is. Now intellectuals on the left are scared to death that the attractive, winsome gal from the non-elite University of Idaho has the same convictions as Reagan and the same common sense that Mises identified as the antidote to socialist nostrums.
The left can't stand the fact that Palin, like Reagan, isn't one of them. Like Reagan, she is not an "intellectual." She doesn't share what Thomas Sowell dubbed "the vision of the anointed" -- progressive elitists' unshakable faith in their grandiose plans for regimenting our lives. To leftist intellectuals, it's okay to have a president who thinks he visited 57 states, a vice president who has claimed that Franklin Roosevelt went on television to calm the people after the stock market crash of 1929 (no TV yet, and Hoover was president), and a Speaker of the House who has insisted that we must switch from fossil fuels to natural gas. All ignorance, error, and mental dullness can be forgiven as long as one subscribes to the political catechism, "The government must control economic activity." What is unacceptable, even evil, to them is someone like Palin, who doesn't subscribe to the same catechism, who just doesn't "get it."
Here is where Herod the Great enters the story. We read in the Gospel of Matthew that Herod feared any threat to his power; thus his vile order to slaughter male babies in the hope of killing off the one with the potential to mature into a leader who would threaten his hegemony. The political left is a modern Herod, desperate to halt Sarah Palin's political career now, before she can grow more formidable and possibly develop into her generation's Reagan.
Indeed, it has been amazing to see the scorn, vitriol, and even hatred directed toward this woman who dares to defy the left's narrow, preconceived notions of what political positions a female politician should be allowed to hold. It was comical to see how Democrats fell all over each other to distort Palin's autobiographical Going Rogue as an attack on John McCain. Why would Democrats rush to defend one Republican from an (alleged) attack by another Republican? Might it have something to do with the fact that they perceive McCain as a "good Republican" -- one who will compromise and cuts deals where Palin would not?
I have no idea what the future holds for Sarah Palin. It is indisputable, though, that the left regards her as its worst nightmare -- an articulate, attractive, effective communicator and advocate of conservative principles with Misesian common sense and Reaganesque potential. That is why she is the object of their Herod-like verbal thrusts today.
Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College and is Fellow for Economic and Social Policy at the College's Center for Vision & Values.