Thursday, October 30, 2008
The Stupid Peoples' Party
The other night, during a break at an evening rehearsal of the choral group I sing with, a friend told me he'd decided that there were three kinds of Republicans: (1) the stupid, (2) the ignorant, and (3) the evil. After some discussion, he agreed with me that "evil" was too loaded and absolutist a term, and we substituted "selfish." He also agreed that "ignorant" was a bit too close to "stupid," so we settled on "uninformed." In the end, we settled on defining the Republican electorate as a triumvirate of the stupid, the uninformed, and the selfish.
Now, as a (retired) lawyer, I can really get into obsessing over fine verbal distinctions. Thus, I could happily argue the subtle differences between "uninformed," "misinformed," and "incurious" for hours. I actually prefer the term "misinformed," because it removes some ethical taint from this large category of Republicans--which happens to include some of my best friends and family members. The term "misinformed" conveys the truth that the errors of the Republican electorate are not actually entirely their fault, but rather are largely the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign. It also gives hope that this large group may ultimately be persuadable. After all, somebody's going to have to do the tough work of saving the two-party system in this country by converting today's authoritarian "Republican Party" back to the true spirit of its founders. As for the term "selfish," although it is preferable to the absolutist label of "evil," it nevertheless doesn't quite convey the combination of moral depravity and banality that my friend and I were trying to describe. I'm currently debating between and "greedy" and "venal." (For related discussion of individuals and groups fitting these various description, see here and here.)
But I have no problem with the first term in this list--"stupid." Whatever else they may be called, a large percentage of Republicans can only be described as just plain dumb. So (with a hat tip to Paul Krugman) I have decided that--at least in its current manifestation--the Republican Party should be known as "the Stupid People's Party."
It was John Stuart Mill who said: "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative." Mill's dictum rings true for today's Republican Party. For every intelligent, honest, honorable Republican (Senators Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, and Olympia Snowe spring to mind) there are hundreds of Republicans who appear to have abandoned critical thinking as an annoying hindrance to maintaining blind faith in a deeply reactionary, top-down authoritarian ideology. Rather than applying critical analysis in an effort to solve the catastrophic problems facing this country, Republicans consistently exhibit a knee-jerk preference--sometimes approaching almost theological dimensions--for imposing a simplistic, black-and-white philosophical template on every issue, invariably resulting in rigid adherence to an ideologically predetermined result in defiance of facts, evidence, history, or reality. (For a classic discussion of this phenomenon in action, see here.)
Here's another great Mill quotation: "Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." (Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2) In other words, it is better to exercise one's critical intelligence and reasoning even if it leads to an erroneous conclusion, than to accidentally avoid making a mistake while blindly trusting to one's "gut instinct" in defiance of critical thinking and analysis.
Mill's paradoxical dictum is based on a profound insight. In a recent article in Salon, neurologist Robert Burton described how, with the decline in critical thinking, the average American voter is becoming increasingly unable to make informed decisions about which candidate or political party to support. The problem is that a person's awareness of his or her own competence (or lack thereof) appears to vary inversely with that person's actual intellectual ability. In other words, the more intellectually unskilled a person is, the more unaware of it he or she will be. As a corollary, a person who has difficulty recognizing his own incompetence will often have an inflated self-assessment of his own abilities. Thus, incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill; fail to recognize genuine skill in others; and fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. As a result, the least intellectually competent people tend to overestimate their own cognitive abilities, and simultaneously believe they are smarter than individuals who are demonstrably of far superior intellect and ability. Conversely, even though they can more accurately assess their own abilities, intelligent individuals tend to overestimate the performance of others, and believe that everyone else "gets it" just as they do. As Burton notes, this phenomenon "should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: 'People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else's.' " (Burton, "My Candidate, Myself," Salon.com Sept.22, 2008.)
As with the political leaders, so with the voters who elected them to office. An electorate of incompetent voters will tend to favor incompetent politicians. Such voters will overestimate their own ability to make reasoned choices, fail to recognize genuinely able politicians when placed before them, and ultimately fail to recognize the extremity of their inability to distinguish between competent and incompetent politicians. The political history of the past 30 years is studded with real-world examples of this phenomenon in practice. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry were all clearly more intellectually competent than the men who defeated them in their respective presidential contests. Yet the sliver of the American electorate that actually determines elections in this country decided differently. Time and again, the lesser candidates were adjudged by swing voters to be "more Presidential" than the superior ones. What does this say about the critical intelligence and competence of those swing voters? The catastrophic results are clearly evident today, as the second Bush Administration stumbles to its ignominious end.
For 40 years, the standard Republican political strategy has been a toxic brew of subtle racism and blatant appeals to class and cultural resentment: the so-called "wedge issues." This has manifested as support for so-called "states rights," vicious attacks on affirmative action, "welfare queens," expanded civil rights, and "voter fraud," and demonization of liberals as weak-kneed pacifists who will "raise your taxes," take away your guns, turn your children into homosexuals, abort your babies, and somehow do away with your (fundamentalist Christian) religion. As such, Republicans have successfully defined liberals--and by extension, the "Democrat Party"--as a failed political philosophy wedded to issues unpopular with a majority of Americans and out of touch with mainstream American values and interests. It goes without saying that this simplistic approach to all issues has channeled political discourse away from reasoned analysis of the actual problems facing the country, and toward simplistic labeling and name-calling based on appeals to fear and greed. In short, all the characteristics that have made the Republican Party a haven for the stupid, the ignorant or misinformed, the venal and the greedy.
The problem for Republicans is that reality is catching up with the fantasy world they have created for themselves, and in which they have forced the rest of the country to live for the past eight years. In the face of the massive catastrophes caused by the Bush Administration's monumental incompetence, corruption and arrogance, the majority of people in the center--the growing segment of the population calling itself "independent"--is catching on to the fact that the entire Republican ideological construct is both a scam and a sham. The Republican "brand" is rapidly collapsing under the weight of its own failures, and losing its selling power. As the bubble bursts, the Republican bubble-heads who have been living inside it have been thrust into the much harsher conditions of the "reality based community." As a result, the more educated and intellectually honest of them have been deserting the Republican Party in droves. This trend--particularly visible among members of the professional classes--has been noted by conservative commentators like David Brooks (here) and David Frum (here).
Lately, with the polls appearing to show the Republican Party in increasingly dire straits, the news has been full of reports of deep divisions within Republican Party ranks, indeed within the entire so-called Conservative Movement itself. Libertarians, Neoconservatives, Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals, social conservatives, authoritarian corporatists, old-line free-market types, and main-street business people are all pointing fingers at each other in a veritable circular firing squad of blame. Let us hope that the fast-approaching election will mark the final collapse of the old Stupid People's Party. Can we then hope for the return of the original "Grand Old Party"--the Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Earl Warren, and the Rockefellers? Only time--and the election returns--will tell. But it may be that the ghosts of those worthies have long since deserted their old haunts, and become ethereal Democrats.