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Practical Foolishness

In this post from Tuesday, I described (Sarah-Palin-style) cultural populism as a dead end for the conservative movement. And now, as if right on cue, along comes Yuval Levin in the new issue of Commentary eager to defend Sarah Palin against various "elitist" critics and provide a (nuanced) defense of conservative cultural populism.

Much could be said in response to Levin's argument (and Conor Friedersdorf says much of it here), but I want to focus on what I consider to be its most important aspect -- important both because it resonates with themes in classic works of political philosophy and because it is widely affirmed by many influential conservative intellectuals. Levin writes:

[T]hose who reacted so viscerally against [Sarah Palin] evinced little or no appreciation for an essential premise of democracy: that practical wisdom matters at least as much as formal education, and that leadership can emerge from utterly unexpected places.


This is the concept that Levin and other conservatives believe can be used to defend Sarah Palin's fitness for high political office -- which just goes to show the incapacity of even the noblest philosophical idea to resist the universal solvent of American egalitarianism. In the hands of these conservatives, Aristotelian phronesis becomes the gut instinct or brute common sense possessed by plumbers and mayors of small towns in the farthest-flung provinces of the nation -- possessed, in fact, by just about everyone in the United States except for those unlucky enough not to have escaped corruption by an Ivy-League education. For these conservatives, attaining the peak of human judgment requires no prior study of history or philosophy, science or mathematics, literature or the arts. It can be possessed by someone incapable of listing a single book or magazine or newspaper or website she has recently read. And it certainly does not presuppose openness to or curiosity about the world beyond America's borders. Nope, it just takes a wink, some sass, a sexy smile.

Levin is right, of course, that "leadership can emerge from utterly unexpected places." But that doesn't mean it often does. Most of the time, it's better to rely on good, old-fashioned intelligence as our best proxy for practical wisdom. American democracy -- not to mention the Republican Party -- will be much better off once conservatives stop putting their faith in the practical foolishness of would-be populist saviors, and begin once again unapologetically to value, champion, and cultivate the virtues of the mind.