Politics & Policy

Clash of Civilizations 2008

Animosity towards Palin reveals a division that goes beyond cultural differences.

Opinion concerning Gov. Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s running mate is dividing almost as fiercely as it did in 1991 when Anita Hill made her accusations against Clarence Thomas.

Some argue that the division is yet another reflection of the depth of the cultural divide in America between Rednecks and Blue State People.

But is the divide, finally, cultural? A question of hunting, hairdos, hockey? Of taste in dress and parenting styles? Only on the most superficial level.

The deeper division which Gov. Palin’s selection has exposed is religious. Palin has called herself a “Bible-believing Christian.” The idea that a person formed in such a troglodytic, pre-Enlightenment school should hold a high place in the government frightens a class that believes, with all the certainty of its Ivy League vision of the world, that Bible-believing Christians are a threat to the republic.

What Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in American politics is now the style of the mandarin classes, as books like Damon Linker’s The Theocons: Secular America under Siege, make clear. For the coastal elites, Sarah Palin is the barbarian at the gate. McCain, in choosing her, was “cynical,” because in the contest with a secular messiah her faith will not only energize Catholic and Evangelical constituencies (which regard promises of secular salvation dubiously), but will also excite the paranoiac rage of many in the secular-liberal camp. People in the grip of paranoia have been known to do stupid things in elections.

The paranoia is real enough. Americans, Linker writes in The Theocons, must stave off “a future in which the country is thoroughly permeated by orthodox Christian piety.” In the paranoiac view of the coastal elites, Christian piety is a threat to secular politics. Its methods are those of Torquemada. Its ideas are those of the Stone Age. How can people who find a truer account of the human condition in the Bible than in, say, the Origin of Species be, well, reasonable?

“Reason’s last step,” Pascal said in the Pensées, “is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go so far as to realize that.”

It’s a point which even the Blue People implicitly concede. For they, too, have their pent-up longings, their unreasonable yearnings for perfection, redemption, a world beyond pain. Senator Obama, who speaks of the moment when “the perfection begins” (the moment when the proselyte sees the light and embraces his communal faith) offers the Blue People a secular approximation of the nirvana they seek.

Sarah Palin embodies the alternative ideal.

Thus the clash of civilizations 2008. The struggle will almost certainly be fiercer in this election than it was in those of 2000 and 2004. The mandarins on the coasts never cared for George W. Bush. But their dread was tempered by the suspicion that the graduate of Andover, Yale, and Harvard was merely manipulating the religious question for political gain. Here was Machiavellianism they could understand — much as they understand Senator Obama’s dalliance with faith-based initiatives. It’s just politics.

In contrast to the Bush dynasty, the Palin clan is, from the point of view of the well-to-do classes, the genuine article, a pure specimen of the native fauna.

That’s not just politics. For the other side, it’s war.

— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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