Vulgus, Schmulgus

Kristol goes astray on Noonan

In The New York Times today, William Kristol takes issue with Peggy Noonan’s proclamation that “the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics.”

Noonan was discussing Palin’s performance on the national stage over the last seven weeks, which she found lacking. Astoundingly, here is how Kristol goes about debunking Noonan’s claim:

Leave aside Noonan’s negative judgment on Sarah Palin’s candidacy, a judgment I don’t share. Are we really seeing “a new vulgarization in American politics”? As opposed to the good old non-vulgar days?

Politics in a democracy are always “vulgar” — since democracy is rule by the “vulgus,” the common people, the crowd. Many conservatives have never been entirely comfortable with this rather important characteristic of democracy. Conservatives’ hearts have always beaten a little faster when they read Horace’s famous line: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.” “I hate the ignorant crowd and I keep them at a distance.”

But is the ignorant crowd really our problem today? Are populism and anti-intellectualism rampant in the land? Does the common man too thoroughly dominate our national life? I don’t think so.

Wait, what? Noonan was ascribing the vulgarization of the election to the politicians who are commanding America’s attention—“[Palin] could reinspire and reinspirit; she chooses merely to excite”—and not to the crowd that trains its eyes on them.

Put another way, Noonan was talking about political praxis à la Palin, as exhibited by choices the Alaskan governor has made—rhetorically and otherwise—on the stump. “But what instincts?” Noonan queried. “‘I’m Joe Six-Pack’? She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation—‘palling around with terrorists.’ If the Ayers case is a serious issue, treat it seriously.”

Noonan was using vulgar to mean crass, in order to describe qualitatively the tactics employed by the Republican camp—not plebeian or common. She certainly wasn’t referring to (or lamenting) the state of democracy, i.e. “rule by the crowd.”

Kristol knows that. But he decides not only to ignore her central point (that Palin has not convinced doubters of her intellectual readiness for office), but also to use a definition of the word “vulgar” that stands separate from Noonan’s topic of concern. In short, he recreates the accusation “vulgarization of politics” as an attack against the everyman. And his response is to note that many of this nation’s mistakes have come from the “highly educated and sophisticated elites,” and that, “as publics go, the American public has a pretty good track record.”

Noonan’s opinion of Palin may not suit Kristol, but it seems pretty ridiculous to in turn criticize it by way of an entirely different argument. Maybe he meant it as a red herring: a debate about the elite vs. hoi polloi is a debate made general, and not Palin-specific. And it takes attention away from Noonan’s delineation of Palin’s inadequacies—for instance, the governor’s seeming lack of intellectual curiosity, and her context-devoid talking points.

These are hardly the digs at the “vulgus” that Kristol makes them out to be. They’re directed straight at Palin’s qualifications. Opinion columns are good for providing the nuanced context that news articles can sometimes lack. But when it’s the wrong context, as it is here, it makes the opinion format seem vapid.

Kristol ends his column by raising “Joe Wurzelbacher, a k a Joe the Plumber” up on the everyman’s pedestal, saying: “He seems like a sensible man to me.” Praising the McCain-Palin ticket for “hav[ing] had the good sense to embrace him,” he adds, “I join them in taking my stand with Joe the Plumber—in defiance of Horace the Poet.” Good sense, it would seem from this, falls to McCain, Palin, Wurzelbacher, and Kristol—and well, certainly not to poor Horace. If Kristol wished to draw such an alignment, he didn’t need Noonan’s column to do so. From the top, now…

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.