Huffington Post

New Huffington Post Column

The Republican Spectrum of Stupidity

Republicans and conservatives make it really, really difficult for us to avoid referring to them as idiots. And with a conga-line of top shelf Republicans front and center for the 2012 presidential nomination, we're being treated to more examples of nitwittery from these people.

In the last six or seven months alone, there are enough examples of Republicans botching very basic ideas and facts to fill volumes of "Bushism" style novelty calendars.

Sarah Palin, the matriarch of Republican idiocy, didn't just botch the Paul Revere story. Among a variety of other gaffes on Twitter ("cackle of rads?") and elsewhere, she has repeatedly botched the First Amendment suggesting it protects radio show hosts and others from offended citizens. Both John Boehner and Herman Cain have confused the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution. Eric Cantor tried to pass a bill that would somehow magically become law with just a House vote, and this magical law would inexplicably force a separate bill to also magically become law without a Senate vote, a conference committee or a presidential signature. Speaking of lawmaking, Herman Cain wants bills that are three pages or less -- presumably with cartoony illustrations by Richard Scarry. Michele Bachmann thinks John Quincy Adams is a founding father and mistakenly linked her campaign with creepy clown/killer John Wayne Gacy. The list goes on and on.

That's not to say all modern conservatives are stupid. I simply don't subscribe to the crowd-pleasing notion that they're idiots.

However, there's a spectrum of anti-intellectualism on the right, and that's a fact. The Republican Spectrum of Stupidity runs the gamut from "genuinely smart but wrong" on one extreme to "genuinely stupid" on the other with various points in between. (The categories can be overlapped, Venn Diagram style, and applied to specific conservative players.)

The categories:

Genuinely Smart but Wrong. These are modern conservatives who are, as the category title suggests, very well-educated and bright, and therefore an endangered species. They can construct coherent thoughts and they try to be intellectually honest in constructing their arguments. But where they fall short is their adherence to ideology. Despite, for example, generally agreed-upon economic arguments about stimulating job creation, they'll insist that tax cuts and spending cuts that impact the middle and working classes are the only solution even though tax cuts do not stimulate job or economic growth, and spending cuts actually make things worse.

Deliberately Ignorant. This brand of conservative exploits the idea that voters want leaders who remind them of themselves -- someone they can have a beer with -- so they deliberately act like slack-jawed yokels at every opportunity. But just below the surface, they're very clever and calculating. Irrespective of political affiliation, we shouldn't want leaders who are just like us, or, for that matter, a random shit-kicker at the bar. We ought to instinctively demand leaders who are better, smarter and more disciplined -- times a thousand. But Republican voters disagree. And so they get these phony-baloney hacks posing as ordinary yickadoos.

Un- or Miseducated. These conservatives are often the ones who botch general knowledge trivia and historical facts, or who don't understand how basic democracy works. I've coined the term "miseducated" here to encompass politicians like Michele Bachmann who, while she studied tax law at William & Mary, obviously missed out on proper history classes during her education. They believe that secession is somehow a noble pursuit despite the fact that 600,000 Americans were killed the last time it was attempted. They don't get it because they never learned it -- or they mislearned it. George W. Bush had extensive schooling but didn't really study because he didn't have to. His family name carried him through his higher education.

Incompetent and Incapable. George W. Bush and Sarah Palin also fit squarely in this category of conservative anti-intellectualism. While Palin, for example, might have been given information by her advisers about the role of the vice president or tidbits about Paul Revere and bell-ringing of some sort, she utterly scrambled the re-telling of that information, which exposed her general incompetence. If you're unable to capably regurgitate information, you really have no place in a role that's almost entirely dependent upon communicating ideas. And if you can't communicate ideas, there's even less of a chance you'll be able to come up with passable ideas of your own, making you increasingly susceptible to the ambitions and political machinations of your advisers.

Genuinely Stupid. At the far end of the spectrum, this category speaks for itself. These Republicans fortuitously stumbled their way into elected office or the news media due to their congeniality or money or both despite being dumber than a sack of Jell-o.

The wild card category is, simply put, Crazy. Going back to Michele Bachmann, I don't think she's stupid. I think she's crazy. Not in the clinical sense (which is her own business), but specifically with regards to her radical ideas blended together with her miseducation -- a concoction that makes her so far removed from even the fringes of the mainstream that I can't believe she's actually being taken seriously as a presidential candidate.

So it stands to reason that a massive assault against our system of public education has been a priority of modern conservatism during this era of incomprehensible austerity.

For Republicans, education and intellectualism is the enemy of their wafer-thin bumper-sticker marketing strategy, and so denying people an affordable education has become a matter of survival for the Republican Party. A dumb voter can be manipulated by sloganeering and trickery. A smarter voter is more likely to see through shallow appeals to fear and transparently deceptive marketing schemes.

On another level, Republicans insist the federal government should stay out of the business of education (considering the Republican effort to privatize education, "business" was used here intentionally) and leave it up to the states, yet Republicans nationwide are slashing education budgets at the state level. Pennsylvania's Republican governor Tom Corbett proposed cutting $825 million from the state's higher education budget. Florida's Republican governor (and Middle Earth gangrel creature) Rick Scott proposed $1.75 billion in cuts to K-12. Chris Christie cut the New Jersey education budget by $812 million, while protecting tax rates for the super rich. Fortunately, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the cuts to be unconstitutional.

Progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann reported on the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in this video. While I'm here, it's worth noting that Hartmann is a phenomenon. A Renaissance man of the highest order and a personality who conservatives would do well to pay attention to. As the host of the most popular nationally syndicated liberal radio show, and the host of a daily TV show, Hartmann, much like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, possesses a killer mixture of both passion and stone cold wonk, informed by a strong academic background. And, unlike many Republican media personalities, Hartmann treats conservatives directly and fairly on his show, even though he routinely (and politely) shreds their myopia by employing a wicked sharp, encyclopedic grasp of history, facts and reality. I don't hear any Republicans doing the same, and I'm not holding my breath. Instead, on the right, we most often tend to hear repackaged fiction torn from the pages of modern conservatism's answer to L. Ron Hubbard, the atheist fiction author and socialized Medicare recipient Ayn Rand, who is worshipped by everyone from Rand Paul (named after Ayn Rand) to Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan and the bulk of the tea party.

There are very obvious solutions to both increasing funds for public education as well as improving it. Rather than the trendy move towards right-leaning reforms proposed by Michelle Rhee or "Rhee-form" (get it?) it makes better sense to pursue reforms proposed by education specialists like Steve Edwards. Edwards' plan includes increased emphasis on developing leadership skills and de-emphasizing both testing and conformity. But primarily, Edwards suggests tailoring reforms to specific community needs, and to subsequently adjust those reforms as the community demographics shift, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach rigidly foisted upon both city and suburban schools. As the principal of East Hartford High School in East Hartford, Connecticut, Edwards reforms significantly improved graduation rates, reduced suspensions and drop-outs, and even reduced the number of fights by half. A breath of fresh air to say the least. So what are we waiting for?

Progressives and Democrats need to shout the following question into every microphone available: Who is best able to contribute to deficit reduction: the super rich or our embattled public school system? The single most effective antidote to our national decline is education. It stimulates the economy over the long run, it encourages innovation, it resurrects the American dream and the middle class and, most importantly, it encourages informed civic participation. Clearly an array of benefits the Republicans and modern conservatives are merrily against as they undermine education in lieu of tax cuts for Koch Brothers and Donald Trump.

The Republicans are welcome to act like idiots as a means of pandering to dumbstupids. Just leave the rest of us alone. America needs more smarties, and I don't think we can afford to wait for the right-wing to catch up to speed.

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  • muselet

    A very good, somewhat depressing column.

    I’d argue that a firm grounding in the sciences is an essential part of education. Not because I think every child should aspire to become a scientist, but because I can think of no other field that so depends upon critical thinking—which may help explain why the Rs are so intent on going to war against science (climate science and evolutionary biology, specifically).


  • GrafZeppelin127

    Very good stuff, Bob.

    As a former educator, I can concur that our system does not produce knowledge and skills, but I don’t necessarily blame that on Republicans or conservatives. I think that modern liberalism is some way responsible for it as well.

    [I’ve written a few essays on education on my Daily Kos diary, and even more on my regular blog which I won’t link here because it would give away my identity. :)]

    The documentary Waiting for Superman, which was mainly just a teachers-unions-bad-charter-schools-good propaganda piece, did make one important and useful point: That while American students’ actual academic abilities and performance lag far behind those of students in other countries, American students’ belief in their own abilities and performance (i.e., the utter awesomeness thereof) far outstrips that of their foreign peers. It’s because that’s what our system produces: Confident, narcissistic, egocentric people who don’t actually know anything.

    I blame liberalism to the extent that it has created counterintuitive ways of assessing student performance, such as subjective standards (i.e., different standards for individual students, so everyone gets an “A” no matter what the objective quality of their work as long as they “tried their best”), entitlement grading (i.e., starting every student off in September with a 100 or “A+” average rather than starting from zero and requiring that they earn their grade-points), rewarding participation instead of achievement (i.e., a trophy for everyone instead of only for the winner(s)), euphemistic language like “deferred success” in place of “failure,” and so forth. Wherever these practices came from, they certainly are not conservative ideas.

    In short, no one can learn anything without being told that there are things they don’t know, things they’re not very good at, and ways in which they can improve. No one can learn if all they ever hear is how fabulous they are.

    This goes to Bob’s other point, about the “stupidity” of Republicans and, more importantly, their fans/supporters/enablers. They watch Fox News and listen to Rush and Beck and Levin and read Coulter and Malkin and Drudge. All they ever hear or read is how right they (and the GOP) are about everything, how persecuted they are by Democrats, liberals, the media, et al., and how heroic they are for voting Republican and being “conservative” in the face of all that persecution. They like feeling heroic and so they like feeling victimized, the same way schoolchildren (on the secondary level, at least) like feeling victimized by teachers. Nowadays, these kids have parents enabling that feeling of victimization, just like GOP fans have their trusted media figures enabling their feelings of victimization.

    The result, then, is a society where all anyone wants to hear, and all anyone does hear, is that which reinforces and validates their feelings of rightness and righteousness, of self-congratulation, of being persecuted by the arbitrary meanness of others, and of the concomitant resentment of whomever they are told to believe is benefiting at their expense. Republican officeholders and candidates cannot, metaphorically speaking, sit their supporters and fans down and tell them about the birds and the bees. Democrats can, and sometimes do, but a lot of liberals hate them for it.

  • IrishGrrrl

    Nicely written Bob!

  • ragemage

    One of your best articles Bob. Thanks!

  • Ned F

    I think they’d be fine with public education if schools used only 1950’s textbooks and non union schoolmarms. This column should make record comments at Huffpo supporting your argument.

  • trgahan

    It would be nice to see people who spend their lives studying education and being educators having input in shaping how we handle public education. Right now, public education seems dominated by people who just want low property taxes and/or charter school builders.
    Alas, I agree with Bob. The undercutting of public education in intentional. If anything, it keeps Americans from learning that the Republican “1950’s American” never existed and that the last time America was a “libertarian paradise” was during the Articles of Confederation, which nearly destroyed the nation within a decade of the Revolution.

  • Bob Olivarez

    Excellent article.