Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity Revisited

Longtime readers may recall that I was initially positive about Sarah Palin because her record was much more libertarian than that of most other major national politicians. Later, I had to reassess my view of Palin, as her ignorance of many important policy issues became apparent. But I also emphasized that ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity, and that in my view Palin suffers from the former, not the latter – a conclusion also reached by liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. I do a lot of research on political ignorance, and the distinction between ignorance and stupidity is one that I have often urged people to keep in mind. For reasons that I discuss here and here, even professional politicians often find it rational to devote their time to activities other than learning about major national issues.

Still, an ignorant but intelligent person is capable of remedying her ignorance to a greater extent than one who is both ignorant and stupid. In reading Palin’s recent memoir, Going Rogue, I wanted to see if there was any evidence that she has taken steps to address what many people see as her biggest weakness – myself included. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say either way. As a sympathetic WSJ reviewer points out, the book devotes little attention to national policy issues. Palin does come across as knowledgeable about Alaska state issues, but her facility in that area was never seriously in question.

The book argues at length that the various gaffes that revealed Palin’s ignorance during the 2008 campaign were mostly the fault of McCain’s consultants and a biased media. I remain unpersuaded. Yes, many people in the media were biased against Palin, and perhaps the consultants made mistakes (it’s hard for me to assess that claim without knowing more about the consultants’ side of the story). Even so, there is no excuse for Palin’s inability to give competent answers to relatively simple questions about such things as which newspapers and magazines she read, which Supreme Court decisions she disagrees with, or describing the basics of her position on US policy towards Russia. If Katie Couric really was out to get Palin, as the book suggests, she could surely have asked tougher questions than these. In any event, a candidate facing a biased media should be all the more careful to avoid obvious mistakes.

More proof is needed before we can conclude that Palin has achieved the level of proficiency with national policy issues that can reasonably be expected from a president of the United States. To say this is not to suggest that Palin is stupid or contemptible. To the contrary, I think that she is a charismatic and capable politician, and no less intelligent than most other political leaders. Her meteoric rise from obscurity to governor of a state is certainly impressive. I just don’t believe that Palin has proven herself to be qualified for the job of president of the United States, or for being within a heartbeat away from that position. More importantly, the Republican Party should be able to do better than nominate a person lacking in basic relevant knowledge. I don’t think it’s too much to expect the party to find a presidential candidate who is simultaneously charismatic, committed to free markets and limited government, and knowledgeable enough to understand the basics of major national policy issues. If the Republicans really can’t find a single viable candidate who meets all three of these requirements, then they have a serious problem that goes far beyond the shortcomings of one Sarah Palin.