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Palin, Paul Revere, and Republicanism

As Joshua Green chronicles in this month’s Atlantic, Palin was a “transformative governor” -- repeatedly challenging her own party on ethics violations, reaching out to Democrats, confronting the oil companies that controlled Alaska, vastly improving her state’s fiscal condition. But the very day Palin was selected by John McCain, David Frum described her as an “untested small-town mayor.” Michael Medved asserted that “by any standard” she was “less prepared as commander in chief than Obama” (without specifying the “standards” for comparing her to an untested first-term senator). A few days later, George Will called her “a person of negligible experience.” David Brooks later labeled her a “cancer” to the Republican Party (he evaluated Obama by applying a sartorial standard to his pants).

There was something about Sarah Palin that set her off from the elite from day one, preventing her from joining the club. And this takes us back to Paul Revere.

Jayne E. Triber’s acclaimed 2001 biography of Paul Revere, A True Republican, portrays him as a working man whose artisan status excluded him from the council of the elite in the Revolution and the political leadership thereafter, but who played a critical role for reasons unrelated to his Midnight Ride. In the words of one review:

Triber’s well-substantiated thesis is that Paul Revere was an excellent representative of an eighteenth-century artisan/mechanic culture, which sought, not entirely successfully, to bridge the gap between artisans and the social and political elite. . . . [A]s a leader of an emerging working class, Revere, "a true republican," should be considered along with his more famous elite colleagues as one of the creators of the American republic.

Another review noted that Revere’s republicanism was evidenced in his relationships with his family, his socioeconomic status, occupation, and associations, and that:

Revere was more than the romantic figure created by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, more than an ambitious goldsmith caught up in the crucible of Revolution; rather, his ambition for “prosperity [and] social distinction led to Republican ideals of liberty and equality based on merit.”

More than two centuries after the Boston Tea Party (which, as we all know, occurred in 1773), another “tea party” revolution came to America, led not by the Republican elite, but by private citizens such as Sarah Palin, who had resigned her governorship and was having an extraordinary influence on the national political debate from her Facebook page. She drove the national conversation with phrases such as “death panels” and “hopey-changey stuff,” which drove the elite crazy but communicated the key issues in a compelling fashion. During the 2010 election, she was instrumental in forging the connection between the “tea party” and the Republicans that created a political earthquake (also known as a “shellacking”).

This does not necessarily mean she should run for president, any more than Paul Revere should have. Revere never held elective office. After the Revolution, he championed the ideas of republicanism -- particularly the necessity of virtue in public life -- and gave critical support to the battle to ratify the Constitution. Sarah Palin may likewise be more effective as the voice of those who -- with good reason -- do not trust the political elite. She reflects Angelo Codevilla’s cogent observation that “a revolution designed at party headquarters would be antithetical to the country class's diversity as well as to the American Founders' legacy.”

She may be better as a Paul Revere than a president. But we should acknowledge that as a candidate, she would not likely say anything as dumb as  her prior problems were caused by working too hard for her country; nor say anything as incoherent as her health care legislation was great for her state but would be terrible for the nation. If she decides not to run, she will not likely schedule a live TV announcement to say anything as ludicrous as all the external signs said she would win but God told her to keep her TV show.

She speaks with an honesty and directness still found in the “artisan class” to this day, often missing from the eloquence of the elite, which is why -- more than three years after the elite denigrated her as an unprepared small-town mayor of negligible experience -- she is still a major political force.