THE BLOG
10/14/2005 08:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reversing the Intellectual Decline

Historians will write of this time that the U.S. was in a period of intellectual decline, a kind of anti-renaissance of thought. Simplicity, and brevity displaced thoughtful dialogue. Repetition passed as true conviction, cult-like adherence to shallow philosophies unseated consideration of creative alternatives and honesty gave way to spin.

This is not an era when thinking about anything for long is valued. We draw conclusions on very little information. And in this way we elect our leaders as well. They debate before elections, but those are merely prepared speeches punctuated by questions. Unlike the questioning that Supreme Court Justice nominees undergo, presidential and vice presidential candidates get away with sound bites. Why else would mantra-like repetition be so effective? If they actually had to speak with us, not only in contrived, cutesy town meetings, wearing plaid flannel, but undergo questioning from Senators and Congressmen and some of us, we might get more than a glimpse of these people.

Yet, serious analysis has undergone cultural rejection in America. I was sitting a New York television studio prior to an interview for my book It’s All Politics. The host, in way of pre-interview chat, said to me, along these lines, “Your book is heavy.” At first, I thought he meant that the publishers had bound it in some unusually dense material. Sensing my confusion, he said, “It’s intense.” Again I looked puzzled. After all, it’s a trade book! “For an academic,” I said, “it’s really rather light and accessible.” He laughed appreciatively and complimented the educational content, but added that most books he sees now days are lists or one page per concept. He pointed to one beside me awaiting its author for an interview. I picked it up. He was right. What had I been thinking? Ah, lists -- of course. I told my agent, but he thinks people don’t want lists from me. I put that on a list.

I don’t know about you, but I want more than lists and repetitive sound bites before casting my next vote for any politician. I learned more about John Edwards on the Daily Show recently than in the many months before the presidential election. The man strikes me as of the earth, so to speak, caring and quite funny. He’s intelligent and passionate about less fortunate people. John Kerry faced anti-intellectualism and came up wanting because he just couldn’t get in touch with “the folks” (Who are they, anyway?). His thoughts and those of Edwards were “intense,” but only by comparison to prattling duplicity. Al Gore actually revealed himself as funny and endearing after a failed bid because we got to see him as a person. Jimmy Carter, a gifted man, has influenced the world more since he left the presidency behind. Why? He was simply not simple or dishonest enough for the job.

John Stuart Mill wrote in his book On Liberty that humans “owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worst and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.” And more to the point, he wrote, “They should forever be stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations.”

So where does this leave us? At the very least, it leaves us obligated to raise our standards. Should we suddenly take on the mantle of erudite intellectuals, expecting the same of presidential candidates? Culture doesn’t turn on a dime. And, besides, there’s much to be said for balance. We don’t need a phalanx of Einstein clones on Capitol Hill. As a start, I decided to ignore advice to the contrary and to make a list:

Let’s expect our leaders to be able to use intelligent phrases without benefit of cue cards.

A step up, we can expect them to educate us rather than berate us with nonverbal condescension.

We could pressure the media to deliver to us real interviews of some length.

Let’s expect candidates to volunteer for conversations, not just speeches, with people in every state, during which we detect whether they are:
(a) intelligent enough to run this country,
(b) “intense” enough to know a good idea, to appreciate and entertain it,
(c) confident enough to listen to advisors on all sides and to us,
(d) capable of understanding the world beyond the U.S. borders,
(e) real people who truly care about the future of this country and its people, young and old, male and female, diverse in race and religion

We can expect honesty and constructive politics.

We can insist on leadership and the courage to deliver it.