The United States is tumbling fast toward a dangerous place. In just the last twenty years or so it has become increasingly acceptable for national political candidates to be openly and obviously dumb about things that matter. More than okay, dumb is now a selling point, an admirable quality that separates uninformed politicians from despised scientists, historians, and other educated experts. Empty-headed politicians and their handlers were once tasked with figuring out how to fool voters into believing that the candidate was smart and competent. Today it no longer seems necessary to hide or pretend. Vote for me because I’m as dumb as you are!
"American stupidity achieves critical mass in the prophetic film Idiocracy due to slow evolutionary processes. Real America, however, isn’t waiting on genetics. That would take too long."
The United States may be on the verge of electing Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who has relied on conspiracy theories, fear, anger, and volume to win over the mob. But Trump’s success to date is a mere symptom of something far worse. He is but the latest candidate in a surge of loud and proud stupidity that threatens to reshape American culture long-term if it hasn’t already. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ben Carson, and other such candidates achieved national political prominence in recent years to show that anti-intellectual reality distortion can gain traction now better than ever before. Trump’s lack of knowledge about government, history, science, current events, national security, foreign and domestic policy, and the military may be alarming but it does not make him unique.
Can’t say we weren’t warned. The prophecy was given in Idiocracy, a 2006 film about a future America where loud, obnoxious morons are ruled by a louder, more obnoxious moron. What was once a forgettable comedy has morphed into a brilliant and relevant cautionary tale. There are significant differences between the film and reality, of course. American stupidity achieves critical mass in Idiocracy, for example, due to slow evolutionary processes. Real America, however, isn’t waiting on genetics. That would take too long.
You are more than Democrat or Republican. It is, of course, near impossible to criticize politicians without most people filtering the comments and ideas through a personal prism of political loyalty. So what if he is an idiot? He’s my idiot! But this problem is larger than Republican vs. Democrat and contrasting political ideas. Intelligence and knowledge should be valued by all in a way that political labels can’t overcome. Voters ought to make the minimal effort necessary to recognize the wisdom in wisdom.
"This problem is larger than Republican vs. Democrat and contrasting political ideas. Intelligence and knowledge should be valued by all in a way that political labels can’t overcome. Voters ought to make the minimal effort necessary to recognize the wisdom in wisdom."
To be clear, for those who find it difficult to see over the walls of tribal politics, I stress that the problem addressed here stands apart from political philosophies. This has nothing to do with small vs. big government, gay marriage, tax rates, gun control, abortion, or any of the other usual points of contention. This is about millions of Americans failing to value intelligence, critical thinking, and a rational worldview when choosing candidates to support.
It’s the stupidity, stupid. Trump’s critics have accused him of being racist, sexist, corrupt, a corrupt capitalist, war monger, fascist, and ego maniac. But such charges are not nearly as worrisome as Trump’s demonstrated lack of awareness and understanding of important topics. For example, a debate moderator asked him a question about America’s nuclear triad (the system of planes, land-based missiles, and subs that can deliver nuclear weapons) and it was clear that Trump didn’t know what nuclear triad meant. Here is the most coherent part of his answer: “I think—I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” He wants to be president but hasn’t bothered to at least read the Wikipedia entry on America’s nuclear weapons defense? Many people have expressed their concern about Trump having his finger on the nuclear button because they feel he is too sensitive and temperamental. The greater concern, however, ought to be that Trump doesn’t seem to know much about what “the button” does when pushed.
America can survive a racist or sexist president. There have been more than a few of those in the past. America can suffer through incompetent and corrupt presidents. We have had those, too. But I’m not sure it can endure many leaders who embrace, flaunt, and champion stupidity. The new dunce worship threatens everything good about America.
The Great Insecurity Pandemic? Why has dumb become attractive to so many people? It’s as if a pandemic of low self-esteem is spreading across America and driving voters into the arms of clueless candidates because it makes them feel better about themselves. How do we fix this? How do we get back to most people respecting the role of intelligence and knowledge in government leadership? If only ISIS or al Qaeda would launch a satellite, Sputnik style. Maybe that would scare Americans back to admiring brain power like they did in the good old days.
"We all labor within a steep-walled canyon of ignorance. What has changed is that fewer Americans seem to agree that scaling those walls toward knowledge is a good and worthwhile thing to do."
We all labor within a steep-walled canyon of ignorance. What has changed is that fewer Americans seem to agree that scaling those walls toward knowledge is a good and worthwhile thing to do. Many now seem content to lie down and wallow in the ignorance. And this is the greater problem. Consider what a Trump presidency might mean given his vigorous embrace of stupidity. Ben Carson—a man Trump has mentioned as a possible cabinet member—thinks the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and humans once coexisted with the stegosaurus and triceratops. Yes, a man who would be incompetent as an elementary school teacher might be the nation’s Education Secretary. Trump also “loves” Dr. Oz, America’s favorite cheerleader for medical quackery. He could be Trump’s pick for Surgeon General of the United States. At this point, how surprising would it really be if a Kardashian or two showed up somewhere in a Trump White House? Did I mention that prescient film, Idiocracy?
"Negligence and incompetence can be anticipated when we see candidates who exhibit little knowledge or interest in history, science, and international events."
Dumb is dangerous. Tempting though it is, we can’t just laugh along and enjoy the circus because national leaders make decisions that can get people killed. President George W. Bush, a Yale and Harvard graduate, was not the complete imbecile his critics charged. But even his most loyal supporters never described him as a policy wonk or deep-thinking intellectual with a keen eye for world affairs. And, sure enough, this mattered. It was revealed after the invasion of Iraq, for example, that Bush knew nothing about the centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Bush had never heard of, much less studied and considered, this obvious and foreseeable powder keg that turned out to be the very thing that sent the Iraq War spiraling down into a still-unsettled catastrophe that has cost many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Negligence and incompetence like that can be anticipated when we see candidates who exhibit little knowledge or interest in history, science, and international events.
Merchants of misdirection. How did not-knowing things cease to be a fatal weakness in a presidential candidate? It happened in large part thanks to the work of soulless merchants of misdirection, more politely called campaign consultants. These masters of deceit engineer the words, dress, and mannerisms of politicians to an unprecedented degree today. Because of them, contemporary politicians function as walking, talking beer commercials. The more shallow the better. Stupidity and intellectual laziness have become commodities to be spun for gain in the upside-down world of American politics. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when American voters knew intelligence mattered.
Many Democrats view Richard Nixon as the Darth Vader of modern politics, a president who exploited racism, made the Vietnam War worse, and covered up crimes. All that may be true, but no one can deny that he was smart. Nixon read books, analyzed issues, and surrounded himself with other smart people. He discussed, argued, sought answers, and thought. Jimmy Carter, a longtime punching bag for Republicans due to his problems with the economy and Iran, was nonetheless intelligent and aware of a wider world. No one thought brain power was a problem for George H. W. Bush, a former CIA director. Bill Clinton, a flawed politician for sure, was studious and intellectually engaged. Americans disliking, protesting, and barely tolerating smart leaders they don’t like is old and normal. Americans supporting and voting for uninformed candidates in such high numbers with such frequency, however, is new and weird.
It is in America’s best interest to end this bizarre love affair with idiocy and stick with the traditional, safer, and more productive swamp of endless Left vs. Right bickering, dirty campaigning, and special-interest manipulation. All that stuff somehow works, to a degree at least, and doesn’t threaten the fall of Western Civilization in the way the new cult of stupidity does. Traditional corruption and partisan nonsense are probably good because they help to prevent one party or one philosophy from gaining too much power and overreaching to the detriment of the nation.
The village idiot exalted. We must abandon the peculiar desire to recognize a peer or even an inferior in a national leader. Let’s admire and elevate people who are brighter, more educated, and more capable than us. Leaders should be out in front leading because they are the best. We don’t need presidents who shuffle alongside of us or, worse, behind us. America is a huge country with a population of more than three hundred million people. It’s not as if the supply of bright people has been exhausted.
A simple solution. This is an easy fix. No overhaul of the entire educational system is needed because dumb voters are not the key problem. The truth is, all voters are dumb about most foreign and domestic policy matters and they always have been. Who has time to learn all that stuff while working, raising children, and watching forty hours of TV per week? Fortunately, we don’t have to elevate the IQ of every American voter to solve this problem. All we need is a new awareness movement to sell the public on an old idea. Spread the word: Presidents should be smart and well informed.
–Guy P. Harrison is the author of six books that promote science and reason, including Good Thinking: What you need to know to be smarter, safer, wealthier, and wiser. Connect with him on Facebook and twitter.