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Political Authenticity and Sarah Palin: A Brief Reply to Conor Friedersdorf

November 30th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

A particularly unusual bout of travelling combined with a frightful bit of sickness has made writing a challenge.  But Conor’s interaction with my contribution to Proud to be Right merits a response.

He writes:

There is much to like about Lee’s essay, but what is the reader to make of this turn? Most glaring is the error of fact. Contrary to the author’s assertion, Sarah Palin is not “extremely likable to most Americans.” In fact, she has a zealous fan base that likes her extremely, but polls indicate that roughly half of the country views her unfavorably. At best, she is wildly divisive, far more so than Mike Huckabee. It is curious that an informed observer of American politics so misunderstands the stated opinions of his fellow citizens.

What to say except that tenses matter?   Here’s the entire paragraph that Conor is referencing:

Those limitations partially explain the phenomenal appeal of the light that eclipsed [Huckabee], Sarah Palin. Palin’s personal narrative, ease, and authenticity all made her extremely likable to most Americans, and grounded our faith and trust in her. And for social conservatives, that’s the preeminent virtue. But unlike Huckabee, Palin introduced the possibility of a conservative with traditional social values who knew how to articulate them without potentially offensive religious overtones or rhetoric. Palin’s social conservatism as it was presented in the campaign (and thereafter) was grounded not in her religious beliefs as such, but in the reality of her family life and her decision as a mother to birth a child with Down syndrome. And that “personal testimony,” while not explicitly religious, strikes a deep chord with social conservatives of all ages.

Palin’s star has taken a beating, but before Palin met Katie Couric she was an enormously popular figure–so popular that she made the race momentarily competitive before McCain’s financial crisis gambit failed and she started taking tough questions.  She’s certainly divisive now, but when all we had were rumors of her record in Alaska, charm, and personal narrative, there was a lot to like.  Where Conor sees a glaring error of fact, I point to a  more temporally bounded claim than he suggests.

Conor goes on to point out that authenticity is a shaky platform to choose candidates from.  He writes:

Near the conclusion to his essay, Anderson writes of social conservatives that “our politics—of both generations—are largely determined by our implicit trust our lack thereof in our candidates.” I’d ask him this question. Given the repeated inability of socially conservative voters to accurately assess the authenticity of their candidates, why should the rest of us give any weight to the outcome of events like the Values Voter Summit? Were it a reliable gauge of how a politician would behave in office, it would at least provide valuable information. But if the social conservatives of the past have inadvertently championed faux-authentic hucksters who successfully misled them about how they’d govern — and this experience has resulted in an investment of trust in Sarah Palin because she seems authentic — why should anyone be persuaded by that endorsement?

Conor notes that I didn’t reveal whether I am a fan of Palin or not in the essay.  I’d go a step further.

Though I haven’t read the piece in a while (I’d invoke Chesterton on the division of labor), I am quite sure I avoided endorsing the politics of authenticity too.  I worked hard to keep a pretty even tone about the whole thing, as my goal was simply to explain why social conservatives are a peculiar block in the voting landscape.  We were asked to avoid sweeping prescriptions or critiques, which I gamely tried to do.

I’d say this much, though:  while opposed to authenticity as a criterion as a matter of principle, I have made room for it in the past as a matter of political prudence.  In our media-saturated world, authenticity matters for winning votes.  All things being equal, conservatives ought to pick the fellow or female who can fake it best on TV.  And in 2008, that was Mike Huckabee.

To Conor’s question directly, then, the Values Voter Summit doesn’t provide valuable information about how candidates will act in office.  It’s mostly a prominent opportunity for conservatives to pander for votes so they can functionally disregard our concerns.

But it does say a lot about the people.  Social conservatives may not always pick the winning horse, but they can affect the outcome.  And the Values Voter Summit provides a reasonably accurate indicator of how they will vote.  No one should be “persuaded by that endorsement” (nor does anyone expect people to be, I think) but it’s also not clear that Republicans can win without it.  If Conor’s looking for the valuable information, it’s in the people and their response to the candidates.