In today's New York Times David Brooks argues that Sarah Palin does not have the experience to be Vice President and therefore President. He joins a growing chorus (he says) of conservative pundits who make this argument. I can't say of course that I disagree with him or them. But my interest in punditry here has little to do with agreement or disagreement. For even in getting to this obvious conclusion, that Palin does not have the requisite experience to be a candidate for such an office, Brooks still encounters logical difficulty. He cannot escape what has become the single most defining rhetorical trope of his intellectual career–the dichotomy.
Brooks's dichotomies are not always fallacious ones–it's more often the case in fact that they are not. A false dichotomy, the reader may remember, suggests two radically opposed and exhaustive possibilities, one completely ridiculous, one your view, as a means of suggesting your view has a kind of deductive support. On further reflection, of course, one finds there are many shades of opposition to your view, so therefore the dichotomy, and the force it gives your position, is false. So, for instance, you either endorse constitutional overreach, or you support the enemy and are thus a traitor. Since one does not want to be a traitor, one finds one must support constitutional overreach. But then it occurs to one that maybe there are other alternatives to constitutional overreach, so one discovers the dichotomy is false. That's the fallacious false dichotomy. Don't get me wrong, Brooks does it a lot. Today, however, it just the rhetorically false dichotomy. He writes:
There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.
But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools.
The elitists favor sophistication, but the common-sense folk favor simplicity. The elitists favor deliberation, but the populists favor instinct.
This populist tendency produced the term-limits movement based on the belief that time in government destroys character but contact with grass-roots America gives one grounding in real life. And now it has produced Sarah Palin.
People may think this has a kind of sophistication to it–wow Brooks can really distill cultural, economic, and political tendencies can't he!–but it's rather a silly way of looking at complex historical, cultural, etc., phenomena. He has, in other words, just pulled this out of his ass. A minimum of inspection will reveal these things are hardly as opposed as he suggests–especially the small town/big city dichotomy.
Where he gets into logical trouble today is elsewhere, however. He continues the narrative that Democratic elites' main objection consists in the fact that Palin does not eat arugula:
Palin is the ultimate small-town renegade rising from the frontier to do battle with the corrupt establishment. Her followers take pride in the way she has aroused fear, hatred and panic in the minds of the liberal elite. The feminists declare that she’s not a real woman because she doesn’t hew to their rigid categories. People who’ve never been in a Wal-Mart think she is parochial because she has never summered in Tuscany.
Look at the condescension and snobbery oozing from elite quarters, her backers say. Look at the endless string of vicious, one-sided attacks in the news media. This is what elites produce. This is why regular people need to take control.
These two paragraphs distill the Palin/McCain campaign's political strategy: call everyone who disagrees with Sarah Palin a cultural elite, characterize the media as the enemy, and so forth. It's one massive straw man. But as long as they keep fighting it, the media will keep covering it, remarking on McCain's brilliant strategy in attacking the straw man, and in knocking him down, all the while they will keep asking why Obama can't get them interested in a real fight, and why this makes Obama weak.
But back to Brooks. Having repeated eight years' worth of straw men, he joins the opposition and claims their arguments, repeated anywhere and everywhere for the last eight plus years, as his own:
And there’s a serious argument here. In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation’s founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.
But before I get to those, I should remark that the above argument would be a false dichotomy. There's an obvious middle ground between a separate class of executives and caricatured portraits of mountain folk. But I digress, back to Brooks's agreement with everything he has ridiculed:
I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.
And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.
Yes. And I think of all of the energetic sophistries Brooks has produced in favor of this ineptness.