Sarah’s here!

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

Jerusalem–Sarah Palin is still with us. “Us” is appropriate, insofar as any American presidential prospect must provoke concern here and elsewhere.

“Concern” is a neutral word. My guess is that Israelis who applauded George W. Bush are warming their hands at the prospect of a Palin presidency.

I am less than enthusiastic, but I am not surprised at the support she has. Different sex, skin color, and politics than Barack Obama, but in other respects a clone. Just as Obama differed in color and politics from GWB, but was a clone in the same ways as Palin resembles him. Not too long ago, Jimmy Carter was in the same category.

Photogenic, articulate, demagogic, inexperienced, and naive about the postures that make them attractive candidates. Electable, but not likely to make the world or the United States better places.

Other democracies demand a long apprenticeship for their national leaders. Typically the ladder goes from local or regional office to the back bench of a party delegation in the national legislature, to a gradual climb through minor ministerial appointments to candidacy for party leadership.

Americans claim to admire democracy. Commentary about the president’s health reform also features the assertion that Americans know what is good for them, in contrast with Europeans held slaves to their governments and high taxes. In the same cultural mix are assertions that political parties have too much power; that the right policies will come from good people who think primarily about the national interest.

This an American syndrome: parochial, promoted by people who know little about Europe, think that the more democracy the better, do not recognize the roles of strong parties in imposing discipline on would be demagogues, and think that low taxes are good indicators of personal freedom. I am amazed by what I read about the superiority of the United States, and conclude that the authors have not flown on a European airline, traveled on a European train, driven on a European road, made a serious comparison of European and American health care, elementary or secondary education, statistics for violent crime, or pondered the quality of political debate and living standards that make Europeans at least the equal of Americans on measures of personal freedom and opportunity.  

By some measures the United States is the most democratic country on the planet. Most states allow the people to vote directly for important issues of public policy: whether the government can borrow money or increase taxes, as well as religious issues like same sex marriages and limits on abortion. Most state judges must stand for election, along with those who aspire to numerous offices that in other countries are filled by political party committees, or appointed by senior civil servants concerned with the professional backgrounds of the applicants.

The downsides of the American democracy are extremely low turnouts for almost all electoral contests below those for president, governor, and United States Senator, as well as low turnouts for those key offices when compared to turnouts in other democracies; and the simplification of referenda by people who create the issues, raise money for the campaign, define the wording that is initially the subject of petitions and later on the ballot.

Complexity of the population and procedures have saved the United States from catastrophe. The separation of powers designed by the framers still works to make it easier on those who want to kill a proposal than to pass a law. The consequence is a difficult in keeping up with international standards. Barack Obama’s party has a majority in both Houses of Congress, but not enough of a majority in the Senate to overcome procedural features added over the years to the basic frustrations of legislation created by the separation of powers.

No one should try to make the United States like a Western European democracy. Histories and cultures are different, as are government structures and the rules (formal and informal) of politics. A campaign to insist on more experience for presidential candidates would be condemned as elitist. And if the likes of Jimmy Carter, GW Bush, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin are any indication, such a campaign would also be un-American.


Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.


  1. carol ann goldstein
    February 10, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    “Photogenic, articulate, demagogic, inexperienced, and naive about the postures that make them attractive candidates. Electable, but not likely to make the world or the United States better places.”
    I disagree and do not include President Obama in this group for I truly believe he has and will continue to make a difference in the US and the world and make this a better world for all of us. However I would include President Ronald Reagan in this group- as a President I consider him to be a complete failure.
    I would not include President Carter in this group for he made this world a better place for all of us and continues to do so.

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