"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 ____ (fill in the crude synonym of your choice) as Presidential candidates? As a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, free-market-loving, independent, who supports an anonymous God-based program for those raised in alcoholic homes, and who has demonstrated no great love for the #Occupy movement or the business-bashing, pro-welfare, deficit-expanding policies of Democrats in general, and this President in particular (whose nomination I opposed precisely because of his short tenure in Congress and insufficient executive experience, in or out of government), I too ask myself this question.
But the question naturally raises an even 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, even 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.
As Mr. Hofstadter made clear, and I made very clear in my semi-tongue-in-cheek Crotty Farm Report editorial, "Idiot-In-Chief", this tendency is not the exclusive province of Republicans. Democrats have had their share of dolts as presidential candidates, including the race-baiting Al Sharpton (who gained fame not only because of his all-too-frequent civil rights protests, but because he claims to be "Keepin' It Real"; read: not formally educated) and Democrat-turned-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond (whose 1948 campaign slogan was "Segregation Forever"). And, God knows, the occasionally clownish Joe Biden doesn't always come across as the sharpest tool in the shed. And though Democrats have generally not elected presidential dolts, the anti-intellectual bias of many voters has forced Democrats to dumb down their rhetoric, such as Clinton's Bubba shtick (with his references to "pig in pokes" and other aw-shucks inanities to cover up his policy brilliance) and Obama's deliberate dropping of the letter "g" ("stop complain', stop grumblin'") to appeal to the "Average Joe."
But behaving like a dolt to win votes is very different from actually being one. And, in this respect, the 2011 version of the God-fearing Ossified Party has rolled out the greatest assortment of Know-Nothings in its long 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 occupation.
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 Michele Bachman attended - and/or little understanding of the world 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 highest possible 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 which regulates the above three occupations and all sorts of other complex and nuanced occupations around the globe (including undercover agents in foreign lands).
That is only the beginning. What is far more troubling is that you can attract a huge amount of support in this country precisely because you lack qualifications to be president. This "anti-elitist" trope is, in effect, the raison d'etre of all so-called "outside-the-Beltway" campaigns of recent vintage, including the social-media-driven campaign of the current occupant of the Oval Office, Barack "57 States" Obama.
However, to fully grasp why inexperience and incompetence have 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 (Coolidge, Eisenhower) 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 conservative Republican mother told me when I asked her why she rabidly supported 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 and intellectually unambitious candidates 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 simple but kindly 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-bearers were 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 mediocrity by publicly telling a Trenton 6th-grader that he needed to add an "e" to the spelling of "potato."
Thereafter, Quayle was the butt of many late night jokes. However, 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 born-again believer, 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 marshaling weapons of mass destruction to directly attack the U.S. (no, he was bluffing to deter his real enemy, neighboring Iran), but that Saddam was also behind 9/11 (never let a good crisis go to waste, eh Mr. Cheney?). Only a true rube could believe such nonsense. And "Dubya" -- 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" Mr. Bush's many blunders, while linguistically repackaging his disinformation for 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 tens of thousands of wounded and mentally shell-shocked Iraq War vets 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 the Bush administration's invocation of the Big Lie and Americans' incurious willingness to either believe that Big 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, Mr. Clinton.
However, for reasons racial and political, though primarily intellectual (Mr. Obama is too cosmopolitan, too worldly, too nuanced, too emotionally intelligent, too Europe-friendly, too suspiciously secretive about things like transcripts and birth certificates), Republicans, from the get-go, have aggressively sought to cut Obama's tenure short. To mask the intellectual inadequacies of most of their own candidates, they've tried to lower the intellectual standing of the President, mocking, for instance, his work as a "community organizer" (not a signifier of one's intelligence or lack thereof) or his frequent use of a Teleprompter (a crutch, for sure, but not necessarily a sign of this President's intellectual stature, but, rather, a reflection of his general demeanor, which is to be cautious and precise when it comes to formal public statements that might affect U.S. standing in the world).
Unable to directly assail the cognitive capabilities of Mr. Obama -- and, because of Obama's middle class roots, unable to brand him an "elitist" as they did with Mr. Gore in 2000 and Mr. Kerry in 2004, despite Mr. Bush's more "elitist" pedigree (Yale's Skull and Bones, anyone?) -- Republicans have resorted to the lowest form of argument, guilt by tangential association. This is how the incendiary comments and actions of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers are deviously applied to Mr. Obama.
However, this line of argument is akin to saying that Mr. Romney is responsible for the actions, beliefs, and statements of convicted rapist, Warren Jeffs, because Mr. Romney and Mr. Jeffs are both devout practitioners of the Mormon faith. Or that Jimmy Carter was directly responsible for the boorish behavior of his brother Billy Carter. Or that Gerald Ford was responsible for the alcoholism of his wife, Betty Ford. Or that each of us is responsible for the statements and actions of each of our good friends, family members, business partners, or spiritual advisors. Sometimes, for myriad and complex reasons, we stand behind people whose actions or statements may not always live up to our standards. I would think that the Republican Party, so deeply imbued as it is with Christian principles, would grasp this concept of "forgiveness" implicitly.
Unfortunately, not only does the Republican Party, and its mouthpieces on AM Radio and Fox News, fail to grasp this Christian notion, but they also find themselves without a bona fide, morally unequivocal, conservative with enough general election appeal to take Obama on. Each hopeful successor to the Republican Simpleton Throne (the coveted RST) 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. By contrast, the eminently intelligent and qualified John Huntsman and Ron Paul (among the smartest, most morally upstanding candidates in the current GOP field) make too much intellectual sense to ever gain traction with most Republican voters, let alone GOP media.
Things are now so bad on the lunkhead front that, in a new poll, 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 gaffe 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 entertaining parade of boobs and clods also includes Michele "Pray the Gay Away" Bachmann, 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 Bachmann is a native of Waterloo, Iowa, voters in the Hawkeye State just cannot see trusting her with the codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal (trusting a Creationist like Bachmann on any public policy is akin to trusting a phrenologist with curing your cancer).
And, yes, until recently, this list also included 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 nitwit folklore.
Moreover, 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 simpleton hallmark: arrogance wed to ignorance.
As a result of such transparently benighted stooges, Iowa Republicans, and conservatives in general, have, of late, reluctantly embraced a bona fide shyster in the Nixon mold: the pompous nastiness known as Newt Gingrich. As I made clear in my previous Forbes column, Darth Gingrich Vs. the Romney Ken Doll, the Republican nomination is now a race between Gingrich and Romney (with Paul's amazing ground army possibly winning him Iowa, then fading into oblivion). However, once the baggage of the former Speaker is laid out for all to see, the nomination will likely tilt back to the Massachusetts Mormon, where's it's been for most of this election cycle.
Now, you might ask, why aren't Republicans in love with Mr. Romney? After all, at Bain Capital, Romney was a successful CEO in the Republican mold, 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 is saying something.
Unfortunately, Romney, a Harvard graduate, is not seen simple 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 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 is anathema to politically and morally unambiguous conservatives, who see the world in great big Murdoch-style tabloid dualities. Or, to paraphrase Mr. Binary, George W. Bush (himself a Harvard MBA grad and proof of the adage, "many are schooled but few are educated"), "you are either with us or you are with the evil-doers."
Which makes the sudden conservative Republican embrace of Mr. Gingrich so ironic. Because, even more than Mr. Romney, it is Mr. 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 compromising on global warming with Democrat Nancy 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 Mr. Gingrich's actions prove are not his electability, but, rather, the catastrophic 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.
Cross-posted from Forbes.