11/22/2011 11:14 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

Thinking About Political Thinking

In anticipation of yet another GOP presidential candidate debate, thinking about political thinking has become an increasingly depressing exercise. Consider what the GOP presidential hopefuls have been saying to us recently. The new Republican frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, has stated categorically that child labor laws are stupid. Let's fire most of our union janitors and hire nine-year old children to clean their own schools. Gingrich, who would be well-suited to play the role of Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life, has also said that the reason for our seemingly insoluble set of contemporary social problems is that America has become a secular nation. Perhaps we can also blame rampant secularism for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) social movement. Using the kind of logic that Gingrich appears to be advocating, if the OWS protestors suddenly got "religion," they might bathe themselves, get a job, disappear and, who knows, maybe even vote Republican.

But these incendiary items represent only the tip of the Republican iceberg of ideas. Gingrich and his fellow GOP presidential hopefuls want to privatize Social Security, which would enable our young people to place the fate of their future on the ups and downs of the stock market roller coaster. They want to gut Medicare and Medicaid and roll back regulations that safeguard our water and air. They want to free corporations from the strangle hold of government. In the name of limited government, most of them want to eliminate federal agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. What's more, the GOP presidential hopefuls think that lowering taxes on the rich, which would further reduce government revenues, would erase federal, state, and local deficits and eventually enable balanced government budgets.

These extreme ideas, none of which stand up to the most cursory examination, make men like Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan look like liberals, if not "pinkish" socialists. Congress enacted child labor laws to protect our children from exploitation. Are we to go back to those 19th century days when adults lowered three-year old children into chimneys? After all, you didn't have to pay them much, if at all, and they were small enough to fit into the narrowest chimneys. Just think of the narrow nooks and crannies that pint-sized six- year old elementary school janitors could clean! And if only we could reconnect with God and end American secularism, the almighty would suddenly bring to our shores an age of American moral and economic prosperity. Never mind that our founding fathers, who were mostly highly educated deists who believed more in an emerging science than in blind faith Christianity, insisted on the separation of church and state, which means that from our very beginning, The United States of America has been a secular state. And how do you erase deficits by lowering taxes on the rich? The notion of trickle down economics, as study and after study has demonstrated, just doesn't work. America was more prosperous when the rich paid higher tax rates than they pay today.

Does it make any sense to eliminate regulations that protect the air, the water and the environment? It does if you believe that pollution is good for you. Does it make any sense to reduce the role of government when the historical record suggests that our greatest prosperity has resulted from the cooperation of government and the private sector? Should we agree with candidates like Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich and blame our economic problems on inept government intrusion in the private sector? As Jeremy Rifkin suggests in his powerfully argued new book, The Third Industrial Revolution, our greatest prosperity has always resulted from the collusion of government and the private sector.

But government is always mucking things up. Name me a successful government program?

How about Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid?

Name me a successful example of government and private sector cooperation that resulted in economic growth?

As Rifkin suggests: how about our system of interstate highways?

What are we to think about this kind of thinking? How can such an extreme ideology become the foundation of one of our parties? Has political illusion replaced social reality?

For me such blind adherence to illusion at the highest levels of our political discourse reinforces an ugly strand of anti-intellectualism in our social fabric, which, in turn is an indictment of how we educate our citizens, many of whom seem to have difficulty sifting fact from fiction. How can we advance as a society if we don't value processes of learning that give rise to the critical thinking that stimulates social and technological invention?

The world is a multifaceted matrix of languages, cultures, economic flows and political systems, all of which are increasingly integrated. The multidimensional problems of a globally connected world can only be solved through careful study and thought -- not simplistic, illusory sound bites that champion a culture of ignorance.

Do any of these GOP presidential candidates have the intelligence and knowledge to confront the world as it is? If you observed the world with closed eyes, you see nothing at all.

Herman Cain says that Americans want a "leader not a reader." No Mr. Cain, Americans want an intelligent, open-minded president, a person who is leader and a reader.