"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and divines."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)
Since I report on American education, including the intellectual lassitude of American voters, foreign observers routinely ask me: Why Do Republicans Gleefully Embrace Idiots as Presidential Candidates?
The question naturally begs a larger question: How can a country, with the world’s highest national GDP, and absurdly complex systems regulating everything from credit default swaps to nuclear missile safety, possibly allow onto its national stage men and women of such transparently inferior intellect?
The easy answer is that there has always been a long, pathetic history of anti-intellectual paranoia in American politics, as Richard Hofstadter documented in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). It is like kudzu. You just can’t kill it. No matter how advanced the U.S. becomes in technology, biomedicine, and weaponry, it not only attracts, but promotes, under the rubric of equal opportunity, a confederacy of dunces as Presidential candidates.
To be fair, Democrats have had their share of dolts, including the tax-cheating, race-baiting, college dropout Reverend Al Sharpton (who gained fame not only because of his courageous civil rights protests, but because he claims to be “Keepin’ It Real”; read: not formally educated), as well as Democrat-turned-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond (whose 1948 campaign slogan was “Segregation Forever”). Nevertheless, in 2011, the God-fearing Ossified Party has rolled out the greatest assortment of Know-Nothings in its history, most of whom share a singular misconception: because I can do one small thing well (e.g., run a pizza chain), I can handle the world’s most demanding job.
At first blush, one thinks this embrace of incompetence has something to do with the uniquely American idea that anyone from any background can become President. It’s an old saw told to almost every young person in the country. I believed it. I also believed that I would be an astronaut or a professional basketball player.
However, reason suggests, that when a clear-headed adult, with no experience in national politics, no reputable training in public policy -- as opposed to a bastion of Christian zealotry like the former Oral Roberts School of Law, which Michelle Bachman attended -- and little understanding of countries outside U.S. borders, says that he or she is running for President, his or her reasonable adult compadres should rightly say, “You are suffering from delusions of grandeur.” After all, you need advanced degrees to properly practice medicine, law, and nuclear physics. Why would we expect the Leader of the Free World to have anything less than the precise qualifications for such an elevated job opening?
However, only in America is no training or knowledge required to perform a job that is not only more complicated and demanding than the above three fields, but one which regulates the above three occupations and all sorts of other complex and nuanced occupations around the globe (including undercover agents in foreign lands).
But that’s only the beginning. What's far more troubling is that you can attract a huge amount of support in this country precisely because you lack qualifications to be president. Such reasoning is, in effect, the raison d’etre of all so-called “outside-the-Beltway” campaigns of recent vintage.
However, to fully grasp why inexperience, incompetence and outright stupidity has such an emotional hold on Republicans in particular, you have to understand a core principle of conservative orthodoxy: intelligence equates with moral relativism. Which is why, after twice-electing a genuine, but fatally corrupt, thinking person in Richard Nixon, the Republican Party moved away from its historically pragmatic moderation in search of morally doctrinaire ideologues. Naturally, this paved the way for conservative extremists, who, while short on smarts -- or perhaps because they were short on smarts -- stuck to “conservative principles” like maggots to rotting meat. As my late diehard conservative Republican mother told me when I asked how she could rabidly support such an obvious dullard as George W. Bush, "Because I don't trust the smart ones."
Ronald Reagan became the first of many morally unambiguous dimwits to warm the cockles of conservative hearts. Yes, with this post-Nixon strategy, the dwindling GOP intellectual fringe (historically held up by William Buckley and barely maintained to this day by the likes of David Brooks and Peggy Noonan) has had to stomach an occasional faux pas (e.g., Reagan's simpleton predecessor, Gerald Ford, claiming in a 1976 presidential debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”), or gasp-inducing ignorance of foreign policy basics (e.g., Sarah Palin not knowing that there is a North and South Korea, or her hysterical notion that Sputnik bankrupted the Soviet Union). But, at least they knew their standard-bearer was not going wishy-washy on them (i.e., thinking hard for a living).
This gambit worked so well with Reagan, it naturally attracted other knuckleheads. First came George Bush Sr.’s running mate, William Danforth Quayle, who promptly showed his latent stupidity by public misspelling potato as “potatoe” … in front of a sixth-grader.
Thereafter, Quayle was the butt of many excellent late night jokes, but he lacked the earnest believability of a Reagan to ever accede to the Oval Office (though he did have a fairly hot wife). It took two terms of an intelligent commander-in-chief, and another moral equivocator, former law professor Bill Clinton, for the Republicans to search again for an unequivocal moral crusader with not a whole lot going on upstairs.
Enter George W. Bush, who, like Reagan, also enjoyed two terms in office, despite beliefs in brazen poppycock such as Intelligent Design and in the whopper of all disastrous absurdities, that Saddam Hussein was not only marshalling weapons of mass destruction to directly attack the U.S. (no, he was bluffing to deter his real enemy, neighboring Iran), but that he was also behind 9/11 (never let a good crisis go to waste, eh Mr. Cheney?). Only a true rube could believe such specious nonsense. And G.W. Bush – who exemplified the adage, “Never ascribe to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity” -- fit the bill. The Republican Party loved him for it, bending over backwards to sanitize and “Hannitize” his many blunders, while selling his disinformation to a gullible American public still in shock from the attacks of 9/11.
At last count, the Iraq Detour has cost this nation trillions of dollars (with more trillions to come, as this country keeps its commitment to care for wounded and mentally shell-shocked Iraq War veterans and their loved ones). It also cost the lives of 125,000 Iraqi civilians, and many times more than that who’ve been wounded or displaced by the Iraqi misadventure. All because of a lie and Americans’ willingness to either believe that lie or not forthrightly contest it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the empirical cost of stupidity.
After the costly policy blunders of Bush, Jr. -- for which this country is still paying dearly in lower credit ratings and draconian cuts in funding for parks, libraries, law enforcement, and more -- in came yet another Democratic law professor to clean up yet another Republican mess. Except this Democrat, Barack Obama, did not carry the moral and ethical baggage of his Democratic predecessor.
However, for reasons both racial and political, though primarily intellectual (President Obama is too cosmopolitan, too wordly, too nuanced, too calm, too Europe-friendly), Republicans have aggressively sought to cut Obama’s tenure short. Unfortunately, this time around they lack a bona fide, morally unequivocal, conservative with enough general election appeal to take Obama on. Each hopeful successor to the Republican Dumbass Throne (the coveted RDT) has proven so cartoonishly dopey as to offend even the intelligence of diehard Iowa primary voters, easily the most unbending conservatives in the U.S.
Things are now so bad on the dumbass front that, in a poll announced yesterday, Iowans are no longer interested in the current crop of Republican cretins. This includes Texas Governor Rick “Oops” Perry, who, in a colossal boneheaded moment in a live nationally televised debate, could not remember the third federal agency he would cut as president.
In an empirical validation of the anti-intellectual streak in GOP Politics, Perry then went on national talk shows the following morning to defend his stupidity as a reason to vote for him. On CNN’s “American Morning,” Perry said, "We've got a debater-in-chief right now, and you gotta ask yourself: 'How's that working out for America?'" In other words, being a good debater, and knowing the issues, is bad for America.
This list also includes Michelle “Pray the Gay Away” Bachman, who believes that “Founding Fathers” like John Quincy Adams “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” (except J. Q. Adams died in 1848, long before “slavery was no more”). Even though the self-righteous Bachman is a native of Waterloo, Iowa, voters in her home state just cannot see trusting her with the codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal (trusting a Creationist like Bachman on any public policy would be like trusting a phrenologist with curing your cancer).
And, yes, this also includes the endlessly entertaining Herman “I’m Not Supposed to Know Anything About Foreign Policy” Cain, whose inability to construct a coherent sentence on Libya and stated desire to prevent an already nuclear-armed China from “going nuclear” are now part of national dumbass folklore.
And lets not forget the deeply annoying Rick "Sanctum" Santorum, who said publicly that former P.O.W. John McCain “didn’t understand advanced interrogation techniques.” A Republican dumbass hallmark: arrogance wed to ignorance.
As a result of such transparently dumb stooges, Iowa Republicans, and conservatives in general, are actually settling on a bona fide shyster in the Richard Nixon mold: the pudgy, pompous, nastiness known as Newt Gingrich. As I made clear in my previous column, Darth Gingrich Vs. the Romney Ken Doll, the Republican nomination is now a race between Gingrich and Romney, which, once all the baggage of the corrupt former Speaker is laid out for all to see, could tilt to the nomination back to the Massachusetts Mormon, where’s it’s been for most of this Republican election cycle.
Now, you might ask, why aren’t Republicans in love with Romney? After all, he’s been a successful businessman in the Republican mold, essentially downsizing companies to their bare essentials and then reselling them for profit. He has that vague, detached, tall Ken Doll vibe that Republicans idealized in Reagan. In addition, as a devout Mormon, he’s squeaky clean in the morals department. Dude doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or drink hot caffeinated beverages. He’s more straight edge than the Crotty, and that’s saying something.
Unfortunately, Romney, a Harvard graduate (and not a faux one like G.W. Bush), is just not seen as dumb enough. Though he and his Mormon faithful believe in preposterous canards (e.g., that Jesus Came to America), Romney consistently demonstrates a frustrating lack of imbecility, particularly in the the artful compromises he’s engineered over his political career, including his momentous achievement of passing mandatory health insurance in his adopted home state of Massachusetts. This subtlety of purpose, this nuance, is anathema to politically and morally unambiguous conservatives, who see the world in great big Murdoch-style tabloid dualism.
Which makes their sudden embrace of Mr. Gingrich so hilarious. Because, even more than Romney, it is Gingrich who has demonstrated enormous flexibility in his core conservative principles. He voted for NAFTA and the WTO; loan guarantees for China; most favored nation status for China; $1.2 billion in aid to the United Nations; and the creation of the Department of Education. Moreover, he reached across the aisle to make deals with Democrat Bill Clinton on welfare reform and a balanced budget, while achieving a compromise on global warming with Nanci Pelosi (which he has since pathetically renounced in an attempt to appeal to the Hannity-Bennett blockhead wing of the GOP). Recently, he attacked Paul Ryan’s budget plan as “right-wing social engineering” (before backing off that claim as well).
What Gingrich proves is not his electability, but, rather, the disastrous absurdity of the Conservative fealty test. Like other fealty tests in American history (from Truman’s Executive Order 9835, a.k.a. the “Loyalty Order,” to Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, right up to Herman Cain’s Muslim Loyalty Test), it is bound to end badly for the candidate, the party, and the country, which is governed best when the commander-in-chief is given enormous flexibility to do the practical, diplomatic, and, thus, smart, thing, not the ideologically pure one.