History, Objectivism, and Sarah Palin. In the last week we have seen the meteoric rise of Alaska governor Sarah Palin within the GOP and among conservatives. If she can survive the next two months with her reputation intact, she could eventually become the most powerful figure in the Republican Party. She would, in that case, either be McCain’s heir apparent (assuming McCain wins in November) or the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2012. How are Objectivists going to view this woman? On the one hand, she is precisely the strong, tough, savvy, good-looking type of female celebrated in Rand’s novels. On the other hand, she may be the most religious candidate on a Presidential ticket this side of William Jennings Bryan. Her emergence is bound to stir up some conflicted feelings within the Objectivist fold—as can be gathered by a cursory glance at the Objectivst blogosphere.
Back in February, we find one neo-Objectivist noting: “Aside from [Palin’s] obvious vice of religion, [she] has all the makings of a splendid vice president. Don't you think?” After McCain selected her late in August, several commentators made it clear they regarded Palin’s selection as an “excellent choice.” Other Objectivist posters are more conflicted. A poster calling himself “Myrhaf” begins by praising Palin’s convention speech and attacking Obama’s inept and dishonest criticism of McCain’s running mate. He almost sounds enthusiastic, until he remembers Palin’s religiosity, which brings him back to earth. He has seen Palin’s controversial speech given before an Assembly of God congregation, and is disturbed by Palin’s “insane mystical ideas.” I came away with a different impression from Palin’s performance in front of her hometown church. Rather than disturbed, I was reassured: because if you look beyond some of Palin’s sentimentalized Pentecostal rhetoric, you will find a surprisingly strong statement in support of the separation of church and state. She in effect told the congregation that, because she was governor, she could not take part in their work to win hearts and minds for Christ. That was the congregation’s job. Her job was to run the state. This suggests that Palin’s religiosity should not be regarded as a threat or a danger. Examining Palin’s record as public official only serves to affirm this judgment. Very little of what she has done publicly has any real connection to her religious convictions. What, after all, does opening Alaska to more energy development have to do with Pentecostal theology? Or lowering taxes? Or suing the Federal government over the decision to make the polar bear an endangered species? Human beings are not determined by their religious beliefs. A person can be religious and still be rational in other domains of experience.
Myrhaf concludes with the following observation: “Palin said in her speech that she would challenge the status quo, but she can't do it. She will fail because she has no intellectual ammunition.” Now this statement relates directly to the subject I’ve been discussing in recent weeks: the Objectivist philosophy of history. “Intellectual ammunition” is important to the Objectivist because he believe that “ideas” determines what happens. Yet it should be clear from Palin’s career that this isn’t altogether true; that what is important is not what people say or pretend to believe, but what they actually do. Although Palin is hardly perfect and, like any politician, has committed mistakes and blunders throughout her political career, she still, despite her obvious flaws, has done a decent job as governor of Alaska. In just a week’s time, she has excited the Republican base more than any candidate since Ronald Reagan. What does “intellectual ammunition” have to do with any of the things she has accomplished? It’s not intellectual ammunition that gets a politician elected or allows them to get things done in government. Politics is about coalition building and out-maneuvering your opponent. So-called “intellectual ammunition” has little to do with it. A politician does not gather support by winning debates or changing people’s mind. In 2000, polls suggested that Bush “won” his debates with Al Gore. Yet Bush clearly did not make a better case for his position in those debates. Not at all: he won because he came off as more "personable." So much for intellectual ammunition!
The Objectivist philosophy of history causes Rand’s followers to misread political and social reality. They end up placing to much stress on what politicians say and not enough on what they do. Even worse, because they have no appreciation or understanding for the institutional constraints that politicians must act under, they are incapable of realistically assessing individual politicians or grasping who should be supported and who should be opposed.