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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

11 Comments

  1. Tense does matter. It’s unfair for someone to criticize a contention made at a particular point in time based on subsequent events and shifts in public perceptions, as Friedersdorf does with your discussion of Sarah Palin and authenticity.

    But your contention that Palin was ‘extremely likable to most Americans’ was probably not accurate, even at that point in time. Her fierce ignorance was undoubtedly authentic and that, coupled with her divisiveness, is why I am not worred about her. From the start, I knew that Palin would doom McCain’s bid for the Presidency (hey, I do have proof). This was published about a three weeks before the Palin interview with Katie Couric started to turn the tide of public opinion against her.

    As I said in 2008, Huckabee was a principled choice for evangelicals voting in the GOP primaries. I don’t think he faked his authenticity best for TV but now he most certainly does on a daily basis. It’s disappointing, really, and should be to eveyone who values reasonable discourse…

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  2. I want to note that her divisiveness was later realized and that it is irrelevant to my critique of your estimation of her popularity at the time you wrote your original piece.

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  3. Prufrock,

    Yeah, I realize that my actual claim is still contentious. I think we disagree about the reason why the initial bounce in the polls didn’t continue. But we have to remember that her approval rating in Alaska was something like 80% when she was picked. I don’t care what state you’re running. To get 80% of anyone to like you is a real trick.

    Your point about moderates not liking her pro-life positions, though, is a good one. But pro-lifers are now the majority of the country, so I think even there I was on decent ground making my claim. : )

    matt

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  4. A majority is still not most, right?

    In your piece, you would’ve been right to contend that Palin was popular with most Alaskans. Hey, the Governor of a state government that sends everyone a check each year with ‘their share’ of oil profits is bound to be popular and she’s folksy. I don’t expect you to agree but it seems to me her ignorance and boorishness would rankle you a bit (despite her apparent political acumen and social conservatism).

    Just curious, why do you think her popularity waned? And what of Huckabee’s new career?

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  5. I’m not sure what the semantic difference is between “most” and “majority.” : )

    I think her appeal went a long ways beyond Alaska. I mean, there have been lots of other governors in that state that haven’t hit an 80% approval rating. Frankly, she made her name by taking on corruption in her own party, which is a pretty decent story (or at least, that was the story when she was first nominated).

    I think her popularity waned for a lot of reasons, some of them fair and others not so much. I think I’ve written before about the “Palin effect” that happens when people get too famous, too fast. She didn’t have to work hard for anything when she got to that level, and she simply wasn’t prepared for it.

    As for Huck, I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t really comment about it. But I do wish he would have taken a less populist route after 08 and buried himself in a library for a couple years to read a few more books (same goes for Palin).

    matt

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    1. MATT:

      Palin’s personal narrative, ease, and authenticity all made her extremely likable to most Americans, and grounded our faith and trust in her.

      Acknowledging that “tenses matter,” I still think you’re mistaken to claim that “most Americans” found Palin an attractive VP candidate in the 2008 election. She was as inexperienced and opportunistic as Obama. Since then she’s only reinforced this impression, quitting her job as a “public servant” in order to earn the big bucks as a book promoter and FOX News consultant. Even before Palin met Couric, failing to answer straightforward questions about her news sources and which Supreme Court justices best reflected her philosophy of jurisprudence, she lost “star power” with Charlie Gibson, stumbling over a question about the Bush Doctrine. (Anyone who had read a magazine or newspaper during the Bush presidency knew that it referred to preemptive war.) Her “authenticity” always seemed questionable to me. The prodigal shopping trips for clothes made me wonder if she was embarrassed by her Alaskan hominess. (Let’s not blame it on her handlers.) And yet, she exploited that very hominess in order to promote her populist persona, as in the infamous “hockey mom and pit bull” remark at the Republican Convention. More recently, she has revealed an inner conflict between “I’m your American Everywoman” and “I’m getting rich and having fun doing it.”

      …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.

      You give Palin far too much credit. There was no “potentially offensive religious overtones or rhetoric” because, as far as I can tell, her Pentecostal background impoverishes her biblical and theological thinking.

      I couldn’t believe my ears during the presidential election when some conservative radio personalities were anticipating that Palin might be America’s Thatcher. Really?

      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.

      If this is true, let’s hope social conservatives go with Mike Pence, who came out number one in the straw poll at this year’s summit, and thwart Palin.

      Reply

  6. Christopher,

    I think the only way to solve it is to dig out the polls from when she was announced as VP. Because so much has happened between now and then, it’s easy to forget what a sensation she caused, and how little negative stuff the Obama campaign had to say. They tried the inexperienced critique, but that blew up on them in a hurry.

    You go on to list all the reasons why she’s no longer popular with Americans, but we didn’t know all that then. We only knew her personal narrative.

    As for “authenticity,” it’s questionable for everyone. That’s why I wrote, “All things being equal, conservatives ought to pick the fellow or female *who can fake it best* on TV.”

    “You give Palin far too much credit. There was no “potentially offensive religious overtones or rhetoric” because, as far as I can tell, her Pentecostal background impoverishes her biblical and theological thinking.”

    I actually think your supposition is wrong. I think someone with a halfway decent bit of theological training could still deploy non-religious rhetoric in public. Politicians do it all the time. Besides, even if Palin doesn’t have that rhetoric for the reasons you gave, my point still stands.

    “I couldn’t believe my ears during the presidential election when some conservative radio personalities were anticipating that Palin might be America’s Thatcher. Really?”

    Well, she is perhaps the Repubs most natural and best political talent (for the executive, at least, where 3/4 of the job seems to be giving speeches). She’s lacking crucial tools, but I think everyone hoped she’d gain them eventually. Too bad she became so famous that she didn’t have to work at it anymore.

    matt

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  7. Christopher Benson December 4, 2010 at 11:17 am

    “Well, [Palin] is perhaps the Repubs most natural and best political talent (for the executive, at least, where 3/4 of the job seems to be giving speeches).”

    Really? If that’s true, I’m depressed about the prospects for the GOP in 2012. I cringe whenever I hear Sarah Palin giving speeches. It’s Dubya redux, but worse. The Repubs have other political talents that could bury Obama in the presidential election, such as Mike Pence, Tim Pawlenty, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, or Newt Gingrich. Sometimes I think conservative talk radio personalities Hugh Hewitt or Denis Prager should run for the office, but they won’t.

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  8. She’s a natural in front of the camera and knows how to work a crowd. And W. was a ridiculously talented politician. I heard him give an off-the-record talk without notes that was probably the most stirring talk I’ve ever been to. I have my own thoughts about why he stuttered and stumbled so much and why he was so bad at giving prepared speeches, but I’ll save ’em for another day.

    I don’t think any of the fellows you mention could bury O. in a general, for various reasons (Rubio’s time is 2016, not now).

    matt

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    1. I’ll concede that Palin is “a natural in front of the camera and knows how to work a crowd,” but that’s not enough to qualify her for the office of president. Compared to Slick Willy, Dubya looked like an amateur politician. If you “don’t think any of the fellows [I] mention could bury O. in a general,” then who can? Pleeeease don’t say Palin.

      Reply

  9. No, it doesn’t qualify her for office. But then, that was never my argument.

    At this point, I’m not sure anyone can beat Obama. I think Republican confidence on this score is very premature.

    matt

    Reply

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