In her Facebook reflections on the events in Arizona, Sarah Palin observes that our government was not designed for “perfect men and women.” It is because we are not angels, she says , that we require a system of government that acknowledges “the inevitable conflicts” produced by our “imperfect passions” and yet provides mechanisms — free speech, vigorous debate — that allow us to settle those conflicts without resorting to “dueling pistols.” That, she declares, is the system the Founders designed, and it is part of “why America is exceptional,” an assertion she makes twice.
This mixture of Calvinist pessimism and unabashed patriotism is writ large in Palin’s recent book, “America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag.” The book opens with a celebration of Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith, the hero of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) is an accidental senator who finds his idealism mocked and blocked by corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists and propagandistic newspapers. The climax of the movie is Smith’s filibuster, in the course of which he cites the Declaration of Independence, written by his namesake, Thomas Jefferson. At this moment Smith embodies Capra’s typical hero — a man who draws his strength from an internal reservoir of virtue, a man who refuses to deed his integrity to some impersonal structure of government or business, a man who is, above all, free.
Exceptionalism can mean either that America is different in some important respect or that, in its difference, America is superior. Palin clearly means the latter:
“When we say America is exceptional we’re saying we are the lucky heirs to a unique set of beliefs and national qualities” and that we are “a model to the world.” She finds support for her assertion n in the writings of de Tocqueville (“The position of the Americans [is] quite exceptional”), Crevecoeur (“What then is the American, this new man?”), John Winthrop (“We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”), Frederick Jackson Turner (the frontier “produced a new product that is American”); and she might also have cited Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and the many Puritans who proclaimed that they were building a “New Jerusalem” on the American shores.
It is easy to see from these references that the claim of exceptionalism has a source in religion, specifically in the tradition of translatio imperii, the idea that empire and faith are traveling westward. In 1633 the English poet George Herbert announced that “religion stands on tip-toe in our land, / Ready to pass to the American strand,” where it would “draw more near” to the last judgment and the second coming of Christ.
Palin is thus on firm ground when she links “the understanding that we are an exceptional nation” with the observation, made by de Tocqueville, that in America “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom [are] intimately united.” “The Founders,” she declares, “deliberately and self-consciously constructed a government based on the belief that religion was at the root of the personal and public virtues necessary to sustain freedom.”
In her view, we are free and equal because as children of God we have an inherent dignity that is inviolate: “We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God.” In statements like this, Palin brings together her argument for a certain form of politics (“to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way”), her claim of American exceptionalism (“we have managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that our Founders hoped we would be”), her grounding of democracy in religion (the equality of men and women follows from their status as God’s children) and her admiration for Jefferson Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King and Frank Capra.
There is then a unity to the book, but it is not one Palin proclaims or works out discursively. Rather, the unity is conveyed by the quotations that carry the argument, long (sometimes two-page) quotations from an impressive variety of authors, quotations that are strong in isolation and even stronger when they are laid next to one another. The book is really an anthology. The author does not present herself as controlling or magisterial; she gives her authorities space and then she gets out of the way. Her performance mimes the book’s lesson: rather than acting as a central authority, she lets individual voices speak for themselves. Humility is not something Palin is usually credited with, but here she enacts it by yielding the stage as others proclaims the truths she wants us to carry away.
Still, as an account of one woman’s love for her country, it is strong enough, and to read it is to understand the appeal she has for so many, an appeal that may have been clouded, but has not been eclipsed, by what happened in Arizona.
An then there’s a bonus, the appearance and explication of the word “refudiation.” It is very well done, and with the appropriate measure of self-mockery, but I will say no more and leave you to experience its pleasures for yourself.