Somewhere between the best and brightest sought by John F. Kennedy and the buffoonery of George W. Bush, the American electorate developed a taste for mediocrity. Rather than seek the candidate most qualified for office, voters preferred a leader with whom they could share a beer.
To elect a president we eschewed brains for bravado. We voted for George because he was a regular guy, no threat to us, just like us, someone we could be comfortable with over some chips and dip and a game of football. We'll overlook the fact that he was from a wealthy elite family. The cowboy hat convinced enough voters he was a real bubba, and that was sufficient reason to cast our vote for him. His lack of curiosity, his disdain for science, his dismissal of reason, his impatience with nuance, his avowed disinterest in complexity and his mangled syntax actually attracted voters. In an odd twist of political irony, intellectualism had become associated with liberalism, and therefore something to be dismissed.
This shift toward anti-intellectualism has had dire consequences, culminating in the disastrous past eight years. Leading the free world is a difficult task that requires some brain power. While that should be self-evident, the election of Bush shows otherwise, and we suffered terribly as a result. Think of any other endeavor in which failure has serious consequences, and we always reach for the best and smartest. We would never choose a brain surgeon, astronaut or Boeing 747 pilot on any criteria other than competence. Why did we fail so badly then in demanding competence, ability and candlepower when electing our nation's leader? Because our culture had adopted the false perspective that politicians can only understand us if they have lived our lives. The electorate confused empathy with ability, an error even more grave given that the alleged empathy was a myth created through clever advertising, reflecting nothing about the man we sent to the Oval Office. Our yearning for understanding was ripe for cynical manipulation, and Karl Rove became the master.
Obama's great legacy of course is becoming the first African American president. But I think he has done something else quite important that is a bit lost in the glory of that accomplishment. Obama has ended the era of dumb government in which we celebrate ignorance as a virtue. He rode to the rescue just in time.
Sarah Palin may or may not have thought Africa was a country rather than a continent. More frightening is an electorate who thought that such a mistake, if real, was not only excusable but acceptable. Fewer than half of American teenagers know in what century Columbus sailed to the New World or the Civil War was fought. Not the specific years - the century of those events. Just over 85% could not locate Iraq on a map. Nearly 30% could not identify the Pacific Ocean on a globe. About 20% of adults in the United States believe the sun orbits the earth. Even today about 70% of voters believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Almost 40% believe in replacing evolution with creationism in school. We come to these sad statistics because we lost our quest for intellectual excellence. We abandoned the principles of Thomas Jefferson, who said that a free government and ignorance could not co-exist. The election of George Bush reflected the wishes of a population no longer celebrating knowledge as power.
Our descent into mediocrity over the past eight years, and the horrors deriving from bubba's failures, finally stirred the populace to action in time to save the republic from Jefferson's worst fears. We really do want the best doctor to perform surgery, and the most qualified politician to run the country. Whether he is like us or not, whether he would be fun to hang with, or shoot hoops with, has finally, thankfully, become irrelevant.
Of course, being smart is not enough. Intellectual ability is necessary in any good leader, but that quality by itself will not carry the day. Jimmy Carter is an honorable, smart, decent man who was an ineffective president. Richard Nixon was smart, and he gave us Deep Throat and expletives deleted.
An effective leader will bring to the office a suite of complex characteristics, and among those will be intellectual curiosity and ability. Obama seems to be the whole package. He has launched a new era in which we can once again embrace and celebrate intelligence, curiosity, subtlety, and knowledge. Not a moment too soon.
Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffSchweitzer