John Stuart Mill on Eccentricity, Elitism, and Sarah Palin

In the weeks ahead there will be many postmortems analyzing where McCain's campaign went wrong. For me, I stopped considering his candidacy after he selected Sarah Palin as his VP pick. Aside from her policy views, Palin's hatred of elites and insistence that small town America is "real America" rubbed me the wrong way. Palin will be part of the political scene for years to come. Below (and below the fold) I offer expanded thoughts on Palin in the context of a wonderful essay I just read – "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill. Mill was a champion of eccentric elites and his view on this issue is worth considering and juxtaposing with Palin's.

In a recent issue of The New Republic, Noam Scheiber notes how common it’s become for politicians to one-up each other in expressing their distaste for “elites.” From George W. Bush and Mitt Romney blasting the overeducated and entitled, to Hillary Clinton famously remarking that she wasn’t going to “put [her] lot in with the economists” during the gas price spike (she’d rather listen, presumably, to “real Americans,” whoever they are), conveying your common-man bona fides is essential to winning an election in America.

While both sides of the aisle shoo-shoo condescending elites, Republicans have championed this mode of rhetoric more in the last few elections. David Brooks recently observed that over the last 15 years most conservative pundits think “the nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.” At the Republican convention in Minneapolis Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, both coastal, well-to-do men, blasted the cosmopolitanism of liberal elites who are out of touch. It’s this constant rhetoric around “Two Americas” (contra John Edwards this bifurcation is between the coasts and the heartland), Brooks argues, that’s causing entire voting groups to turn blue — tech executives, lawyers, doctors, the west coast, northern Virginia, etc. In other words, any geographic region or profession where a cultivated mind and taste for fine wine is nothing to be ashamed of.

No fact captures the contemporary Republican party’s distrust for urban elites better than their christening of Sarah Palin. Her arrival on the national stage (a stage she will be on for many years to come) represents the ultimate celebration of everyday America. Her resume boasts no fancy degrees and instead a small town mayorship and rural state governorship. Her passport, empty of stamps. Her accent is defined by a folksy twang. Her debate style involves winks, home-town shoutouts, and phrases like “doggone it” and “say it ain’t so Joe.”

What’s so wonderful about Palin is that it’s almost all real. (That this is remarkable says something about our current politics or at the least the cynicism of a generation whose introduction to D.C. came in the form of Bill Clinton lying about an oval office blow job.) Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose pathetic attempt at relating to small-town folk led her to down Crown Royal whiskey and pizza at a campaign stop, Sarah Palin can credibly drink Coors Light, watch a Nascar match, and shoot a gun. If Hillary and Sarah were to face off at a Town Hall meeting, and a questioner asked about gun-rights, it’s pretty easy to imagine Hillary becoming entangled in a wonkish explanation of the 2nd Amendment, with a chirpy Sarah responding, “Hey now, don’t ya think every old shmuck like me (wink) oughta be able to have a gun to keep the psychos of our lawns?”

Certainly, some portion (though as we learned on Nov 4 not most) of the population responds favorably to the latter style of answer. But others shrivel up – like me. Her overbearing folksiness rings hollow. Then again, I’m not her audience. By Palin’s calculus, I’m one of the coastal elites who’s too stuck up to listen to a hockey mom. A deep-rooted class resentment has been part of Palin’s worldview and identity for as long as she’s been in the public eye.

The larger question to ask about Palin and her style and history is whether it’s the only way to engage Nascar-loving middle Americans. By picking her, the Republican party seemed to think so. Their losing 2008 playbook read: extol the virtues of the common man, celebrate the simple life of the marginally educated, and insult pointy heads’ polysyllabic phrases. I, for one, find it patronizing to think that a factory worker will respond only to relentless plain speak and not an even mildly cerebral argument. But there’s a deeper concern beyond the condescension of party strategists who underestimate (and indeed create a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy around) the mental horsepower of someone who works with his hands and reads the Bible: it is the disregard of the idea of intellectualism and the work of professional intellectuals.

John Stuart Mill can defend these disregarded intellectuals better than anyone. Mill more than most cherished the contributions of geniuses, of eccentric personalities, of original thinkers. Mill more than most sounded the alarm at societal pressures to “normalize” these types rather than harness their energy for broader good. And so it is Mill more than most who would be dismayed at Palin’s near-proud anti-intellectualism and the Republican party’s broader elevation of the everyman-over-refined-man strategy.


John Stuart Mill’s brilliant essay On Liberty focuses on the importance of individual liberty. His principal argument is that one should be able to do what one wants so long as it does not harm others. I will focus on his secondary point which is the endangered freedom to be eccentric and intellectual. His argument works as follows.

First, individuality is a high form of personal freedom. If you are truly free of coercion you can express your natural personality and interests however you wish. Mill calls the “free development of individual expression one of the leading essentials of well-being.” Mill says that to simply follow custom and order requires no more than ape-like imitation capacities or mere passive living. To live in life – to live an active life – means not following some pre-defined model, Mill says, but rather to “grow and develop…according to the tendency of the inward forces which make [a person] a living thing."

Second, those most likely to have individual eccentricities are those most likely to contribute the mightiest to human knowledge and advancement. Mill calls them geniuses: “I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice…” He then equates eccentricity with genius: “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained.” Genius, to be clear, he defines as not just people who like to “write an exciting poem or paint a picture” but more complex, unique thinkers. They are often more informed than the masses about the world and thus the open-eyed should be drawn to their power of example. The opposite is happening: “…The opinions of masses or merely average men are everywhere becoming the dominant power.” Hence society needs to foster an atmosphere of support so complex minds can “breathe freely” leading to “more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought.” Celebrate geniuses and the wisdom that comes from their unique paths in life. 

Third, there is pressure from society (peers, authorities) to reign in one’s individuality and obey general customs:

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves — what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine?

It is that hostile eye of censorship which means the “mind itself is bowed to the yoke…conformity is the first thing thought of…peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct are shunned…their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures…”

So: individuality is good, outsize contributors to life tend to skew toward the individualistic, and pressure to conform to the least common denominator threatens this individuality.

For Mill a society has reached its nadir if it embodies the old Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” It’s the nails that stick up which drive society forward. To be sure, he does not argue that the nails should rule the world. But he does believe their interests need to be protected and intellectual habits seen as exemplary — not dismissed as "un-American."


Is Sarah Palin against individuality, diversity of interests, and the enlightened mind? She would say no. Granted it’s not an either/or question: Mill emphasizes the importance of eccentric elites and Palin emphasizes the nobleness of common folk, but each could, in theory, argue for the other group’s proper existence, too.

What would irritate Mill about Palin's message during the campaign was not only the contempt shown for elites but the lack of acknowledgment that the high minded way of life is in some way worthy of emulation. Mill hoped to elevate the masses to a greater level of erudition. He saw the pursuit of one’s own intellectual path as something Good and natural. I suspect he believed there’s a sort of forward motion inevitability toward wiser and more refined living for any human being who follows their internal impulses.

I’m not suggesting that the anti-elite Republican rhetoric this season would have been more politically effective if the message was, “Vote for us, we understand the 1% of eccentric geniuses better than the Democrats.” The masses outnumber the geniuses and you want to speak to them.

The Bottom Line: Can Republicans figure out how to cheer on the wholesome hobbies of Middle America while also promoting the pursuit of higher intellectual plains (and offer respect for those who obtain them)? Is it possible to resist shameless populism and blindly following arrogant elites? To form a political strategy around middle ground that doesn't alienate either group? As the Republicans head into the wilderness to figure out what went wrong on Nov 4, hopefully they will be considering these questions.

6 comments on “John Stuart Mill on Eccentricity, Elitism, and Sarah Palin
  • I read a great line this morning, which ties in with your post:

    “College educated Americans have concluded that their bank accounts are safe with the Democrats, but that their values are under assault by the Republicans.”

    It seems to me that this gets to the heart of things. The Reagan coalition depended on supplementing free-market capitalists with Reagan Democrats who wanted a return to muscular patriotism.

    The Bush 2 Administration somehow managed to reverse Reagan’s alchemy–it dramatically enlarged the Federal government, and its tendency to paint its opponents as friends of terrorism struck most as McCarthy-esque rather than patriotic.

    Reagan helped everyone–Democrat and Republican–feel better about being American. Bush 2 made everyone feel worse. Then along came Obama with a Reaganesque charisma and a message of hope.

    Palin is still fighting the last war, much like the Democrats during the Reagan era. Time to move on.

  • I think this has been exacerbated by the right’s tendency to demonize mainstream media and attempt to set up it’s own parallel universe. (Make sure you read the entry on Barack Obama, though they appear to have removed the exhaustive “proof” that Obama is a muslim.)

    This morning on the way to work I briefly listened to the local right-wing radio guy. Someone had called in looking for a general purpose magazine that covered the week’s events in things like science, politics, the arts etc. Time and Newsweek were ruled out because they’re too liberal (the host agreed) and they were despondent that there wasn’t really a right-wing alternative. I guess the Economist is too effete, and besides, they endorsed Obama.

  • “I, for one, find it patronizing to think that a factory worker will respond only to relentless plain speak and not an even mildly cerebral argument.”

    There is a substantial minority of the population of this country that behaves in precisely this way. Ignore this fact at your peril. Further assumptions about their demographics would require empirical evidence, but their existence is proved by the fact that W was elected not once but twice.

    I very much concur with Chris Y’s comment.

  • I wonder if the word “genius” had different connotations back in JSM’s era, because it seems very out-of-place now. A word like “deep thinker” would be much better, genius brings up too many math-prodigy/IQ themes these days. Anyways, good essay.

  • I can’t say it better than Matt Taibbi:

    “Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she’s the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV…”

    A person who doesn’t know that Africa is not a single country can’t be “brought up to speed” on world history and politics (or even their barest outlines, much less any nuances of State policy) in a few intensive briefings, as that steaming pile of self-serving petulant egotism, Bill O’Reilly, suggested she could be recently.

    With all the effortless instinct of a born demagogue, Palin understands intuitively that the straightest path to the hearts of her disaffected constituency is an appeal to their unthinking reptilian-brain reflexes– envy, racism, and the desire to crush perceived foes.

    Then again, the monstrous effrontery of ‘to the manor born’ Ivy-League elites like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney attacking the over-educated and entitled is beyond cynicism– it reveals their utter contempt for the intelligence of the masses they flatter.

    They practice that principle of the Machiavellian political dark arts elucidated in these words written by the co-architect of Nixon’s Southern strategy, Kevin Phillips:

    “The whole secret of politics is knowing who hates who.”

    So of course a dimwit paleo-“conservative” like Sarah Palin is intimidated by intelligent people– the same half-understood intuition that guides her through life and her political career informs her that they can see through the phoniness and pretense of her despicable, grasping ways.

    Palin, and demagogic villains like her, have no future in US politics– unless al-Quaeda manages to pull off another devastating attack within our borders.

    Should that awful day ever come, God forbid, then her hateful star will rise.

  • it was a cold day for i have no warm clothes to wear here , the other reason was that it gradually become colder and colder .if i was in my hometown ,i think i already put on my thickest clothwow goldes at this time .but i am in gz where is a warm place .

Leave a Reply to Dave Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *