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Palin appeals to American's anti-intellectualism

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 17 October 2008

Former beauty queen Sarah Palin has breathed new life into the American frontier legend giving her instant appeal across America. Advertising herself at the Republican convention with the words “We grow good people in our small towns”, Palin has used her fresh face and unmistakable voice to inject a dose of pure nostalgia into the American presidential mix. The continual search for re-birth and newness is a familiar theme in American politics and Palin’s positive reception reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quip that “The youth of America is their oldest tradition”.

Outside of America, Palin’s paltry number of passport stamps and lack of knowledge about the rest of the world led to a collective groan of “here we go again”: another incurious American striding across the globe talking about “good guys” and “bad guys” (terms used by Palin herself in her recent claims that America should not second guess Israel if it chooses to bomb Iran’s nuclear program).

At home she is the latest installment of the American dream; abroad she is seen as an all too familiar global nightmare. Does the reaction to Palin outside of the US reveal a certain anti-Americanism, or have the Republicans chosen a candidate so patently ill-prepared that it is an insult to the intelligence of Americans and the rest of the world?


Foreign distaste for American populism is nothing new and Palin fits a well established set of tropes and stereotypes. This perhaps explains why opinions on Palin have already crystallised even though she has been in the spotlight for only a short time. Drawing on these tropes and stereotypes, people have made a snap decision about what Palin symbolises.

It has been claimed that Europeans didn’t discover America, rather they invented it. It is hard to deny that mythology has played an especially important role in American society and politics. The myths of the first explorers and pilgrims were largely positive with America portrayed as the Golden Land, the New Jerusalem, the endless frontier, the big rock candy mountain. However, soon a series of negative images emerged of Americans as hypocritical, ignorant, money grubbing and uncouth.

Many of these negative views were first propagated by European travellers who visited the American frontier in the 1820s and 1830s and commented disapprovingly on the boorishness and electoral populism they encountered. In the campaigns of the 1820s a former military commander of Scots-Irish stock, Andrew Jackson, was pitted against the establishment figure of John Quincy Adams. Old Hickory as Jackson was fondly called assailed the eloquent Adams for his love of learning and Latin, for being effete, and for being too European in his tastes.

Of course this all sounds familiar: Bush said he knew he would win the 2000 election when he read in a New Yorker magazine profile that Gore said he enjoyed reading the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty. In 2004 John Kerry’s ability to speak French and his wife’s expensive “European” tastes were said to be a distinct electoral weakness, and in 2008 we have another feisty Scots-Irish former military man assailing a Harvard educated silver tongue for his lack of real world experience.

To counter this anti-intellectualism politicians often try to hide their learning. This was one of Bill Clinton’s talents and something he long understood. Apparently Clinton seriously considered choosing the University of Arkansas over the far superior Yale to study law in the early 1970s because he worried an East Coast education would mark him for life (just as he worried that as a 22-year-old draft-dodging would make him unelectable).

In a land that has long sent a higher percentage of their population to universities than any other country and where an Ivy League degree carries tremendous cultural and economic benefits, this resentment of intellectuals seems contradictory. In the age of Jackson, or even in Joseph McCarthy’s time, higher education was still largely the preserve of a privileged few - but by the late 1950s this was no longer the case.


Despite having degrees from elite institutions like Duke, Yale, and Harvard, Republican candidates have mastered their appeal to the non-college educated voter, claiming that Democrats condescend and talk down to them. Sarah Palin spoke to this resentment in her acceptance speech. The dividends from this divide are starkly evident in the statistics: in the forthcoming election McCain is likely to win at least nine of the 10 states with the lowest proportion of college graduates. Obama, on the other hand, is likely to win nine out of the 10 states with the highest proportion of university graduates (and he could well win all 10).

President George W. Bush, like Reagan before him, showed that a limited knowledge of foreign affairs is no impediment to the White House, and in fact, can have a certain populist appeal.

This dumbing-down of international affairs is often resented by foreigners who are generally much more kindly disposed to Democrats who are seen as being more worldly and cosmopolitan.

Gestures such as Kennedy having Robert Frost read a poem at his inauguration or Clinton inviting the Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez to the White House may seem like footnotes in the life of a world leader but they are symbolically important. They remind Americans and the world that, since the time of Thomas Jefferson, Americans have actually had a thirst for knowledge that is rather impressive.

Politicians like Palin often ignore this legacy and instead rail against an appreciation of learning and specialist knowledge as if this was akin to ill-gotten Wall Street gains. Being from the frontier has too often been an excuse for American insularity and ignorance towards the rest of the world; however, given America’s global power and responsibilities this is an indulgence that the world, and America, can no longer afford.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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