When Rick Perry’s brain froze at last Wednesday’s GOP debate—leaving him unable to name the third of three federal departments he proposes to shut down—it wasn’t like someone setting up a joke and then forgetting the punchline. He was reciting something straight out of his standard stump speech: shutter the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy. I know that Meat Loaf says two out of three ain’t bad, but in this case it was disastrous.
How did we devolve to the point where a leading Republican candidate for the presidency can’t count to three? Whatever happened to conservative intellectuals?
John Stuart Mill famously dismissed mid-19th-century British conservatives as the “stupid party.” But in the America of my youth, it wasn’t true. Conservatives looked up to intellectuals. William F. Buckley set the tone with his sesquipedalian erudition. George F. Will was a must-read, and my conservative classmates at the University of Texas in the Age of Reagan could all quote Milton Friedman.
No more. Today’s conservatives are more likely to mimic Rush Limbaugh than Buckley, and they probably know more of the work of Salma Hayek than Friedrich Hayek. To be sure, Will still commands respect, and intellectuals like David Frum and Bill Kristol carry the torch ably. But today’s Republican Party is more the party of Sarah Palin’s defiant know-nothingness than the brainy conservatism of Bill Bennett. The GOP is a party of ideologues, not ideas.
Some of this, no doubt, is a reaction to the academic left and its dominance of the Democratic Party. A 2009 analysis by the Harvard Law Record found that nearly a quarter of President Obama’s appointees had a Harvard degree. There are 2,474 four-year colleges and universities in America. And one—a great one, to be sure, but still just one out of 2,474—produced one in every four Obamabots? No wonder my party often appears intellectually arrogant.
OK, “appears” is too weak a word. I will admit that there is little in life more infuriating than to be condescended to by someone with a superior academic pedigree and a superiority complex. Far too often the default argument for liberals—and yes, I have done it too often myself—is “You’re stupid.” Not the way to win friends and influence voters.
But it can’t all be the Democrats’ fault. In fact, it’s not even mostly their fault. Smarty-pants liberals have always been with us. Adlai Stevenson was once supposedly told he would have the vote of every thinking person in America. “The trouble is,” he replied, “I need a majority.” But Stevenson’s pedantry didn’t cause conservatives in the ’50s and ’60s to spurn ideas and denigrate intellect. Why now?
This is a populist moment in America, and the GOP has traditionally been the party of elites. So how does a party sell economic elitism to a populist electorate? By wrapping it in populist anti-intellectualism. Let’s teach those Harvard pointy-heads a lesson: cut taxes for billionaires! I know it doesn’t track logically, but this isn’t about logic. It’s about emotion and scapegoating and finger-pointing.
And so even the smart Republicans—and I do believe most of the candidates in the GOP presidential field are intelligent—have to at least play dumb. Mitt Romney, for example, has to pretend he doesn’t know what’s causing global warming. A few weeks ago he told an audience in Pittsburgh, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” Hard to believe, because as recently as June of this year he said, “I believe, based on what I read, that the world is getting warmer. And No. 2, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Romney’s new-and-not-improved position is a shameless pander to the know-nothings.
Same with evolution, where Republicans know they can earn applause by denouncing science. Apparently to run in today’s GOP you must believe, in the words of comedian Lewis Black, that “The Flintstones is a documentary.”
As with everything in politics, know-nothingness will succeed until it doesn’t. If, as appears likely, the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney, they will have nominated a very intelligent man. We’d better hope he acts like it. The world’s—and America’s—problems are too complicated for us to be governed by a simpleton.