Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When Did The US Start Valuing Stupid Politicians?

How did it happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?

Was it charity that permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president?

How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering mulyuks succeed?

How were Republican rallies in 2008 drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

The US has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, unique among the developed nations, learning is a grave political disadvantage in America.

There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklyn Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived. But Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as cerebral elitists, as if this were a disqualification to be president. Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan's response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter – stumbling a little, using long words – carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan just smiled and said, "There you go again." His own health program would have appalled most Americans had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn't always like this.

This great Republic’s founding fathers – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others – were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W. Bush and Sarah Palin?

Dumb Is As Dumb Does

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is a failure. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept evolution; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD.

But this merely extends the mystery: How did so many US citizens become so stupid and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the best explanation I’ve read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: Religion generally, and fundamentalism specifically, makes you stupid. The US is the only rich, developed country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Jacoby shows that there once was a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after The Origin of Species was published, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's theory was mixed up in the US with “social Darwinism” and the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with help from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

In other words, Darwinism became indistinguishable from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is totally ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by prominent fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the tested science of Darwinian evolution but embrace the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.

Local Control

But there are other, more powerful, reasons for the intellectual isolation of fundamentalists. The US is alone in giving control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters and a great educational gulf opened.

"In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest denomination in the US, has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to an advanced degree without any exposure to secular teaching.

Worse, Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A 1998 survey by researchers at the University of Texas found that 25% of the state's public school biology teachers believe humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American worship of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education is unnecessary; all that is needed to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century were in vogue.

But in the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Subversive Intellectuals

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism is equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism nearly 80 years ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Every day, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite – like the neocons, some of them former communists, surrounding Bush – has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite is successfully branded as elitism.

Barack Obama has a lot to offer the US and the world but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people like Bush and Palin who flaunt their ignorance.