15 September 2008

Who You Callin' Stupid, Stupid?

Rearranging newspaper pages from the last few days, I imagine a debate among several national pundits, including our old favorite, Maggie Gallagher. She's on her hobbyhorse again this week, contending that "Barack Obama's problem is that his campaign is based on a fundamental untruth: The reason Republicans get elected is because the American people are stupid."

The day before, the latest Thomas L. Friedman column appeared in a local paper. It was headlined, "Making America Stupid," but I don't know if that's Friedman's label or the local editor's. It can be inferred, however, that Friedman is accusing the Republicans of the headline offense. His evidence is their determination to make "Drill, Baby, Drill!" a rallying cry for the national campaign.

"Why would Republicans, the party of business, want to focus our country on breathing life into a 19th century technology -- fossil fuels -- rather than giving birth to 21st century technology -- renewable energy?" Friedman asks. His answer helps explains Gallagher's weekly bloviations.

I dwell on this issue because it is symbolic of the campaign that John McCain has decided to run. It's a campaign now built on turning everything possible into a cultural wedge issue -- including energy policy, no matter how stupid it makes the voters and no matter how much it might weaken America....I don't know how much steel is in Obama's belly, but I do know that the issues he is focusing on in this campaign -- improving education and health care, dealing with the deficit and forging a real energy policy based on building a whole new energy infrastructure -- are the only way we can put steel back into America's spine. McCain, alas, has abandoned these issues for the culture-war strategy.

Friedman never exactly spells out what makes "Drill, Baby, Drill" a "culture-war" tactic, and he's not exactly infallible himself -- he's a dogmatic free-trader, for instance, -- but you can see his point. In its most vulgar form, which is Maggie Gallagher's, the culture war's battle cry is "they think you're stupid." Whatever the actual issue under discussion might be, Republicans try to win voters to their side by arguing that the other side "thinks you're stupid." Did McCain convince you that we need to drill now, and did Obama say that drilling won't solve our problems? Then Obama must think you're stupid!

Gallagher does the same thing with actual "cultural" issues. Here's a bit from this week's rambling column.

Meanwhile in Leftyland, the fury is falling like brimstone over Gov. Sarah Palin's head. The latest idea? Attack Sarah Palin's church for promoting so-called 'gay conversion,' which for the left is obviously far worse than the moral equivalent of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's 'God (expletive deleted) America.' A Christian church teaching that Christians should confine sex to marriage between a man and a woman? Scandalous!

Yes, that's Gallagher's own "(expletive deleted)." Hollywood could say "damn" in 1939 but our columnist hasn't yet gathered up the courage to catch up. Nevertheless her point is clear: if you have moral scruples against homosexuality, or pre-marital sex for that matter, they think you're stupid! The only real question is whether, like Obama, they "think of us Americans as basically good-hearted but stupid" or, like "most of his leftist brethren, [they] see Americans as both malicious, evil discriminators and stupid."

Does Gallagher honestly expect that voters should base their choices on notions like these? Does she think we're stupid? If she does, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that's okay. The moral of my own little outburst this evening is that we ignore the stupidity of Americans at our peril, and that flattering that stupidity, as all politicians do, Republicans especially, puts us in even graver peril.

David Brooks is as conservative a writer as the New York Times will publish. This weekend, he dared to hint that conservatism, at least as practised in modern-day America, might make people more stupid. American conservatism (not necessarily that of the American Conservative magazine, however) has been influenced strongly by the individualist concerns of Barry Goldwater and his 1960s followers. Brooks considers the consequences:

Goldwater's vision was highly individualistic and celebrated a certain sort of person -- the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. The problem is, this individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth -- that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another, and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

Brooks goes on like a determined debunker, citing the findings of cognitive science and Republicans' ideological blindness to it. He deplores "the mismatch between ideology and reality" in the housing crisis, among other areas that Friedman or I could mention, and notes a decline in conservative thinking from the pre-Goldwater days when "conservatives were incredibly sophisticated about the value of networks, institutions and invisible social bonds" and conservatives "understood that people are socially embedded creatures and that government has a role (though not a dominant one) in nurturing the institutions in which they are embedded." McCain, Brooks notes, actually isn't nearly as bad on this score as most other Republicans, since he often talks up public service as an admirable thing.

David Brooks is careful about how he says it, but if the Maggie Gallaghers out there concentrated really hard on his column, they might be able to deduce that "he thinks we're stupid!" But once you explain that Brooks is a Republican, her brain might snap, crackle and pop like a Star Trek computer conned by Captain Kirk. I want to leave the topic for now, however, with a question. What if Gallagher is right? What if, deep in their hearts, Obama and other Democrats, other liberals, think the average voter is stupid? Could that possible explain the tepid manner in which they wage general elections? For that matter, what would be wrong with thinking so? What would be wrong, and what I'd like to discuss in further detail later, is an apparent failure to confront stupidity, call it out, call it wrong, and call on people to change their thinking. If that's what's going on, then something may be wrong with democracy itself, or at least with democratic republicanism as it's practised in America.


crhymethinc said...

The first step in curing stupidity is for the stupid to acknowledge that they're stupid. ie, admitting you have a problem is the first step in correcting the problem. Most people, deep inside, know that they're stupid. It's getting them to publicly admit that they are and that being stupid is a problem.

As one imaginary being said it: "Stupid is as stupid does."

Samuel Wilson said...

The real hard part isn't necessarily going to be getting people to admit they're stupid -- that part may not even be necessary. The challenge will be getting them to acknowledge that someone else might know more than they do and might therefore be more qualified to lead the nation than someone who flatters the mob and pretends to be one of them. The reason conservatives say that liberals "think you're stupid" is to get voters angry at liberals for supposedly "telling us how to live." Leave aside the hypocrisy of that rhetoric coming from the friends of the religious right. The real point is that in a democracy everybody is telling each other "how to live," but ultimately it comes to a vote. To say you shouldn't have to listen to people "telling us how to live" is undemocratic. If that attitude begins to prevail in a democracy, or a democratic republic, then something is FUBAR with either the political system or the society itself.