Sarah Palin is, you might have noticed, a very polarizing politician. Liberals are absolutely flummoxed that anybody could like her. Conservatives can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like her. I think that Sarah Palin shows up a fundamental difference in values between liberals and conservatives: conservatives value right-brain thinking and liberals don’t.
As I have posted before, Jonathan Haight found that liberals and conservatives place different weights on aspects of morality. Liberals weight fairness much more highly than conservatives, for example, and conservatives weight what Haight calls “purity” much more highly than liberals. “Purity” is IMHO a poor term for it: “gut instinct” is probably a better term. It’s getting the feeling that something is wrong or right. This is a right-brain function.
Our educational system works hard to get people to stop listening to their gut, to process with the logical, procedural, lingual left-brain side. There are good pedagogical reasons for this: the right brain is fundamentally non-lingual, so it is difficult (if not impossible!) to explain right-brain decisions, to examine the decisions for errors in reasoning or assumptions, or to grade right-brain reasoning. The right brain can only communicate its conclusions with feelings, with “gut instincts”.
The right-brain does not communicate its decisions well, but that doesn’t mean that its processing is invalid. There are many things that the right brain can do that the left brain cannot. You cannot derive a great song, deduce that your spouse loves you, or prove that that figure a block away is your cousin Chris. People who make decisions only with the left-brain, only with facts and logic are more vulnerable to errors in the models or starting assumptions. (One might argue that the entire mortgage meltdown came from an over-reliance on left-brain reasoning and paying inadequate attention to the little voices saying, “waitaminute — can this really work?”)
If you value right-brain processing, then the political climate for you must be very frustrating. Liberals don’t even pay lip service to right-brain processing: it is so non-valued that it is a complete blind spot for them. (If Obama was any more left-brain, he’d fall over.) I can imagine that it would also be scary to see your beautiful country in the hands of people who apparently are paying no attention at all to their gut.
Sarah Palin is total right-brain. Here is what she said when asked when Bill O’Rielly asked her if she was smart enough to be president:
I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fact resume that’s based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles. Americans could be seeking something like that in positive change in their leadership. I’m not saying that has to be me.
Nothing in her answer has to do with left-brain facts or logic, and in fact she skewers left-brain training (“elite … education” and “a fact resume”). She is also completely unapologetic about being right-brained; instead of being guilty and ashamed of it, she gets angry and frustrated at her critics. This is a high-status behaviour, and people think that high-status people do good things, as I have posted about before.
Meanwhile, liberals look at her left-brain abilities and are appalled. They find fault with her left-brain abilities, as evidenced by what they see as her rhetorical weaknesses: her inability to marshal facts into the type of coherent, rhetorically logical arguments that they favour. They do not value her right-brain rhetorical abilities — her ability to reach people’s “guts” — because they do not value right-brain skills. The conservatives are less bothered by her weakness in left-brain skills because they do not value left-brain skills as much.
The left also remembers G. W. Bush, who was also very right-brain, going on gut and instinct. They think that his instincts were frequently wrong (e.g. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction) with disastrous consequences. So to some extent, they are punishing Sarah Palin for what they saw as G. W. Bush’s mistakes.
Note: I have been somewhat loose with the terms “liberal” and “conservative” here. While I think there are probably not very many right-brain liberals, there are left-brain conservatives. Andrew Sullivan is clearly a left-brain conservative, and Sarah Palin clearly drives him absolutely nuts.