When populism gets out of control

The parody rockumentary "This is Spinal Tap” features a scene in which a fictional rock band’s manager defends a particularly idiotic decision by pointing out that he was merely following the instructions of Nigel Tufnel, the band’s profoundly clueless lead guitarist.

Lead singer David St. Hubbins replies, "But you’re not as confused as him, are you? I mean it’s not your job to be as confused as Nigel."

The latest in a string of revelations about the depths of Sarah Palin’s ignorance — a report that she’s apparently incapable of naming any Supreme Court opinion other than Roe v. Wade — is a reminder that it’s not the job of someone who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency to be as confused as the average American.

John McCain’s nomination of Palin has turned out to be what can be called an attempt to pull off the Full Nixon. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon figured out that there were a lot of votes to be won by tapping into widespread resentment of "arrogant elites," who thought they were smarter and better informed than their fellow Americans.

For months now, McCain has been hammering away at this theme in regard to Barack Obama, whose Ivy League education is supposed to have infused him with the arrogance and elitism that makes him contemptuous of ordinary folk like, for example, Sarah Palin.

Palin has spent almost her whole life in a very small town in a sparsely populated and extremely isolated state. For reasons that remain obscure, she attended five colleges in six years where, if her public performance to date is any indication, she seems to have learned nothing.

If Palin knows anything at all about national politics or foreign affairs or history or economics or almost anything else one would want a president to know something about, she has till now kept that fact remarkably well hidden.

She is, in other words, the ultimate representative of a kind of out of control populism. In its more extreme forms, populist resentment of elites flows from the belief that any ordinary person knows enough to be a good political leader, since political leadership is all about having the right values, and good character, and a pure heart.

This is of course nonsense. It makes about as much sense as saying that performing open-heart surgery or piloting a jumbo jet is all about having the right values.

McCain and his advisers know this, which is why they’ve spent the last month trying to stuff Sarah Palin full of plausible sound bites of information, so she can at least pretend to know what she’s talking about when she’s asked questions about the federal government or foreign policy or economics or history, etc.

It’s a cynical and incredibly reckless strategy, especially given McCain’s age and precarious health. (McCain’s odds of dying of natural causes in the next four years are, conservatively speaking, at least one in seven).

It’s a sign of how successfully political knownothingism has been exploited in America that it’s even necessary to say this: To do a decent job, the president of the United States needs to be vastly more educated and knowledgeable than the average American.

This is a necessary, though far from sufficient, requirement. And, as Palin’s cringe-inducing performance on the national stage illustrates, there are plenty of politicians who are no more qualified to be president than I am to be an NBA power forward.

Consider that the most recent of Tina Fey’s hilarious yet horrifying Saturday Night Live parodies of Palin included merely repeating, word for word, one of Palin’s rambling and nonsensical answers to CBS interviewer Katie Couric’s questions.

That fact by itself ought to disqualify John McCain from the office he seeks.



(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)