Criticizing Ross Douthat.

There was plenty to criticize in Ross Douthat’s column last week about Sarah Palin’s resignation as Governor of Alaska. He argues that because she’s got no fancy degrees and is aggressively anti-elite she represents a democratic, as opposed to meritocratic, ideal. Plenty of people did. But Freddie at the League of Ordinary Gentleman perhaps unfairly took issue with Douthat’s description of Palin as middle class.

Ross– Sarah Palin’s family makes better than five times the national median household income. Five times! The Palins own a huge mansion, four other properties, two boats and a plane! I will never be as rich as the Palins, in all likelihood. Hell, the odds are pretty good that any three readers of this blog combined made less than half what the Palins made last year. There is no earthly sense in which “lower class” can retain any meaning and include Sarah Palin.

But that’s not really true. The Palins probably do now, but they made about $170,000 the year before she launched her national “career.” That’s a lot, but it’s not five times the national median income, which was $50,000 the same year. And for a family of five, that’s solidly middle class. It might be upper, but it’s in the middle.

I think Freddie conflated middle-class with working, but even then the Palin’s fit culturally. Before she entered big-time politics, they mainly earned their living off Todd’s hard labor as a fisherman and through other physical jobs. While their income reaches levels many in the country can only dream of, they actually can dream about it. It fits into their aspirational experience of life; plenty of plumbers and builders work their way to $100,000 plus range. Like Palin or not, she’s solidly in the middle, of a lot.

I’m also not going to criticize anyone who wants to vote for her because there’s something about her life that looks a bit like his or hers. The truth is, some markers indicate that you might hold the same values. Pretend you didn’t get excited when you learned that Obama ate salmon and brown rice, and drank Honest Tea.

The League makes the point that the Palins have a lot more in common economically with a middle-class black couple than they would a poor white couple, but since when did we become material determinists? A good Marxist would argue that capitalism in the U.S. would prevent a poor black, a poor Latino, and a poor white family from realizing all they have in common. If they did, they would overthrow the system, right? So sorry, League. You’re wrong on this one. There’s a lot Douthat’s wrong about, too, but he’s right that the Palins appeal is their middle-classness. Their house is big, sure. But that’s not the point.

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9 thoughts on “Criticizing Ross Douthat.

  1. E.D. Kain July 13, 2009 at 11:30 am Reply

    Just a quick note – “The League” doesn’t point out or state anything. It’s a group blog with a number of different, often-competing viewpoints. Better to comment on the individual author rather than “The League” as a whole. Just sayin’….

  2. Winslowalrob July 13, 2009 at 9:11 pm Reply

    But who amongst us is a good Marxist nowadays?

    • Leigh July 14, 2009 at 9:12 am Reply

      Well, I try…!

      • Winslowalrob July 14, 2009 at 10:46 pm Reply

        Bah your matieralism is not nearly historical enough. Your Marxism is not even crass! For shame!

  3. Josh July 14, 2009 at 7:37 pm Reply

    Saying that $170,000 is “solidly middle class” stretches the term beyond all useful meaning. 2005 Census data: Only 5.84% of households made over $150,000 a year:

    The data doesn’t break down for $170,000, but we’re probably talking about someone in the top 3-4% of the country in income.

    I realize in America everyone likes to claim the blanket protection of being “middle class,” but if the 97th percentile puts someone “in the middle,” you might as well invent a new language instead of redefining the old one.

  4. stevenattewell July 14, 2009 at 11:43 pm Reply

    I’m with Josh here. Middle class has a whole bunch of meanings, but if we’re going to use the income definition, median quintile ($35-55k) means middle class – i.e, right in the middle of the distribution of income. At $170k a year, plus extensive property wealth, the Palins were, if you don’t want to use the term rich or upper class, solidly affluent.

    And according to the wikipedia chart, only 3.17% of households made between $150-200k.

  5. quadmoniker July 15, 2009 at 9:26 am Reply

    All of those are fair points. But the year before that the Palins made about $125,000, and more than $100,000 was from her salary as governor. Before that, there are no public records, but the mayor’s salary in Wasilla now is just south of $70,000. I still think my overall point holds; culturally the Palins belong in the middle class despite their income, and, like the Obama’s, their financially struggling days are not far behind them.

  6. stevenattewell July 15, 2009 at 1:07 pm Reply

    Fair enough, but can’t we use the term nouveau riche? Or possibly nouveau affluent?

    • quadmoniker July 16, 2009 at 5:12 pm Reply

      agreed. i think that’s fair. i just don’t think it’s fair to call them wealthy, especially compared to other politicians.

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