The left’s obsession with Sarah Palin is one of the most interesting political and social phenomena of our time. The degree and volume of venom directed at her staggers the imagination. It is unprecedented in recent times especially for someone who does not currently hold office.
This comment on a Hit and Run thread, provides a common example:
You jest, but on my drive home last night I listened to a couple of NPR disembodied voices opining as to how Sara Palin was different, even in today’s polarized political environment, because she demonizes the opposition. The irony was particularly palpable because the “round table” discussion about how evil Sara Palin is was the lead-in to an interview with the author of a “behind the scenes” expose book about Sara Palin that promises to expose her as the evil, manipulative monster that she really is and was immediately preceded by a blurb that the creepy reporter who moved in next door to the Palin family to spy on them had moved out.
The callers were able to restore some balance, however. The first caller they put on wanted to know why the press hadn’t fully investigated Palin (which the panel agreed was singular to Palin and no other politicians escape such scrutiny). The same caller proceeded to point out that she never believed the story about the birth of Trig, the down’s syndrome baby, and wondered why the media never fully investigated that. When the “balanced” round table gave a perfunctory acceptance of the premise rather than denouncing her “birther” views, I gave up and changed the channel.
Leftists try to rationalize the hatred by claiming that Palin is an extremist, but that is easily disproved by comparing where she stands on various issues versus how many Americans hold the same views. Moreover, if she truly were an extremist, she wouldn’t be a threat because she would have no electoral base.
No, the best explanation for the left’s bizarre Palin obsession is status-anxiety. Status-anxiety occurs when a person believes that their position in a real or imagined social hierarchy is threatened. Leftists react emotionally to Palin because of the threat she poses to their own individual sense of status. All their other arguments are just put forth to rationalize that emotional reaction.
In short, it is not the ideas she puts forth, its that someone like her is significant at all.
Status-anxiety occurs most strongly when a group has no meritorious claims to its social position. The classic example would be the pre-WWII European aristocrats who inherited their wealth and position, and who therefore had no right to status in an industrial society other than from cultural inertia. Closer to home, the most vicious white racists were poor and working-class whites who knew full well that only racism kept them from being on society’s bottom status tier. As long as all non-whites were judged inferior to any white person, a poor white person still had some status. They bitterly resisted losing what little status they still had.
Leftism at its heart holds that a small percentage of humans have a vastly superior understanding of everything compared to ordinary people. The point of leftism is to empower these superior individuals to impose their superior understanding upon society by the force of the state. Leftists must be viewed by themselves and others as superior human beings if they are to have a claim to power and status.
It might seem that leftist elites would have little concern for a loss of status, but in the last 40 years society and political culture have changed a lot. Prior to the ’60s, the left could point to the real and imagined successes of the technocratic progressive era to justify their status. They could claim that they saved the country from the Great Depression, fought WWII and contributed to the post-war prosperity. America’s great cities were peaceful and prosperous under the benign rule of Democratic party machines. People voted with their feet, migrating from what we call today red areas to leftwing blue areas.
Times changed, but the left remained not only stuck in the ’50s but moved even farther left by mimicking the European left. After the ’60s, the left had few successes to point to. The Great Society failed, the ’70s were an overall train wreck and the once great Democratic cities of the Northeast collapsed. People voted with their feet again but this time migrating from blue areas to red areas. In this process the left lost its meritorious claim to status.
Since they have few meritorious indicators of a personal and group claim to status remaining, leftists are forced to fall back on the same standards employed by the European upper classes. They try to restrict status not by merit but by conformity to their own life pattern. They demand that people go to the right elitist schools. They demand that people live in certain communities. They demand that people have the right recreational interests. They demand that people enjoy uniform kinds of art and music. They demand that people have the proper modes of speech, accent and allusion. They demand that people have the right religious beliefs. And so on.
On this basis Palin is a nightmare: She went to a state college. She lives in the “backwoods”. She likes hunting, fishing and sports. She likes country music and representational art. She doesn’t have the right accent. She doesn’t dress appropriately. She’s a Pentecostal instead of atheist, Unitarian, Episcopalian, etc.
Palin’s success stabs them in the heart of their anxiety. If Palin can be a successful political leader, what does that say about the leftists’ claims of intellectual and moral superiority? If people don’t just instantly assume that leftists are smarter and better than everyone else, why would people trust a leftist government to make so many decisions about the people’s live, e.g., medical care?
That is why leftists see Palin as a genuine and significant threat of unusual magnitude. In the emotional thinking of leftists, she is a personal threat to everything each individual leftist has attained in life. They feel a sincere, visceral sense of danger about her because she attacks the very core of their egos. They feel the same hatred towards Palin that the European upper classes felt towards the upstart middle-class. They feel the same hatred that poor whites felt towards non-whites. They feel that way for the same reasons. If she succeeds, worse, if she is right, then they become nobodies.
As long as she is viewed as a significant political figure, the left’s obsession with Palin will never wane because it does not spring from rational roots. She threatens something too deep and too profound in a political subculture built around the belief that a small percentage of human beings have a vastly superior understanding of the world compared to all the rest.
[Update: I have expanded on leftists' elitism by taking the commenter Mauro below as representing a typical leftists. See Fisking Mauro Part 1: Rising Above One's Station]
[Update: Here I examine the leftists elitist belief that they make better decisions than ordinary people. See Palin Dumb? History say "Nope!"]