01/20/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Palin Problem (It's Not What You Think...)

Last week, Sarah Palin defended the tone of her rhetoric after accusations that it may have contributed to the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. She unrepentantly noted that at one time, elected officials used to settle scores by fighting duels. I have to admit, Sarah's right. She reminded me once again that it is not incivility in politics that is so dangerous -- it's stupidity.

The real crisis in American politics isn't about one tragic shooting, it's about a cultural phenomenon -- the celebration of stupidity -- that has taken over this country. These days, there is no place idiocy flourishes more than in the Republican Party -- from Senatorial candidates who campaign on the 'not a witch' platform, to a sitting Congresswoman who hints that filling out the census may land you in an internment camp. These are the shining faces leading the GOP in the 21st century.

Richard Hofstadter's 1964 classic, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, goes a long way to explain our current predicament. In the 47 years since Hofstadter wrote his exegesis on anti-intellectualism, the American public has been the victim of an ever-growing onslaught of crazy.

Though you would never know it today, the American conservative movement once had a strong foundation in serious ideas from serious thinkers. Today, noteworthy men like Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, and William F. Buckley, have been replaced by Glenn Beck -- a conspiracy theorist who cultivated a coke habit rather than obtaining a college degree. And let's not forget Sarah Palin, who meandered through 5 different colleges to earn one degree but evidently missed out on English 101. No wonder the crux of conservative ideology -- a preference for slow and temperate change -- has been replaced by a Tea Party crusade to repeal the 14th, 16th, and 17th amendments of our Constitution.

For a distressing example of just how lost the GOP is, look to the headliners of this year's Conservative Political Action Committee conference, to be held February 10th in D.C. -- Crazy Ann Coulter, Andrew 'pimps and hos' Breitbart, and Rick 'man-on-dog' Santorum. Not to mention Sen. Jim DeMint -- who recently proposed unmarried pregnant women be barred from teaching in public schools. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, you can't help but get the feeling these folks should not be offered a seat at the grown-up table. Hofstadter's description of those leading the anti-intellectual charge as "the marginal intellectuals, would-be intellectuals, unfrocked or embittered intellectuals, the literate leaders of the semi-literate" rings painfully true today.

Ideologically motivated influencers have been replaced in the cultural hierarchy by puppet-masters who specialize in turning the brazen stupidity of the Tea Party into dollar signs. As the Russell Kirks came to be replaced by the Koch brothers -- the corporate billionaires now running the conservative scene- any political theory the party leaders used to hold has been replaced by a penchant for straight corporate-ocracy. The Tea Party advocates that climate science is a conspiracy developed by evil scientists, but never questions the conspiracy of polluting behemoths funding their movement.

For another sad example of how boundless stupidity on the right now feeds corporations, look to Dick Armey, the man behind Freedom Works (the money behind the Tea Party). His organization orchestrated a decidedly anti-intellectual campaign against healthcare reform, where facts were surpassed by "Obama is going to pull the plug on your Grandmother" lunacy. You can be sure the arguments Freedom Works propagates have everything to do with Dick Armey's lucrative ties to the health insurance industry.

So, for likely the first and last time, I agree with Sarah Palin -- the vitriol in American politics today is hardly unusual -- and given the scope of problems we face, and the level of disagreement, that passion is entirely appropriate. However, fervor shouldn't replace facts -- passion is no substitute for pragmatism.

And absolutely none of our problems will be solved with stupidity.

Friend Erica Payne on Facebook

Get the inside scoop: