Taking Stupid Seriously

President Obama and the Dethroning of Reason

By Yoni Wilkenfeld 

So far, this year’s Republican primary season has served up a buffet of flubs, bloopers and goofs to a media machine hungry for scandal and ratings. It has been the Year of the Gaffe, from Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s early faux pas in Waterloo, Iowa (she incorrectly praised the town for producing American hero John Wayne when it had in fact been home to serial killer John Wayne Gacy) to Governor Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment and Herman Cain’s awkward unfamiliarity with American involvement in Libya. Talking heads across the spectrum have spent weeks mining each misstep for its political and comedic value, finally deciding that Republicans are incapable of providing a competent alternative to Governor Mitt Romney. More serious analysts have bemoaned the fact that, in the eyes of many Americans, these blunders have failed to disqualify the candidates from the office of the Presidency.  It seems, these observers complain, that many voters are simply not bothered by a presidential candidate doesn’t seem to know what he or she is talking about. An increasing number of critics are joining in the refrain that conservatives are uneducated, unintelligent, and incapable of serious democratic participation.

The punditry has missed the point, for there is a much deeper phenomenon at work. Compare the current Republican field with the Obama Administration, which from the outset put its faith in a theory of pragmatic technocracy. Drawing many of his advisors from the worlds of elite academia and think tanks, President Obama valued the advice of empirically-minded policy wonks at least as much as the partisan voices of his own party. Even his more politically-minded appointees were often drawn from the Clinton Administration, mythically lauded as the liberal model of pragmatic centrism. While this had obvious political advantages, it appears that Obama genuinely aimed at approaching the nation’s problems intellectually instead of ideologically. At least in appearances, the major projects of Obama’s first term seemed crafted by professors, technocrats and intellectuals.

Unfortunately, as any true empiricist will admit, there are severe limits on what human knowledge may achieve. Even the most scientific analysis will fail to predict the total impact of economic policy or to escape human biases. Our grasp of the full implications of large-scale government intervention remains incomplete. Compounded with the political constraints of Congress, it should be unsurprising that the stimulus package and health care reform did not have the earth-shattering effects expected by many of their proponents. Yet President Obama did not explain this. His failure was not simply in crafting imperfect legislation but in his inability to explain to the American people that imperfect legislation does not implicate the entire project of empirical, rational policymaking. By not showing how intelligent technocrats can in good faith fall short of creating ideal policy, Obama has done a tremendous disservice to Americans’ faith in competent government.

The fruits of this failure are now upon us. Responding to criticism over his Libya gaffe, Herman Cain claimed that “a leader doesn’t have to know everything,”  brandishing his gaps in knowledge as further evidence of his outsider credentials. Rick Perry has argued that he may not be the “smoothest debater” but that he understands the plight of the American worker as only a truly non-elite can. All of the leading presidential hopefuls, particularly Newt Gingrich, have continually painted media criticism of their gaffes as a liberal conspiracy against conservative candidates who shouldn’t be held to factual standards as long as they share a certain set of values. It has become politically fashionable to embody the opposite of the paternalistic intellectualism of the Obama Administration; smart has become condescending and stupid has become honest. As the economic woes of the country remain tied to Obama’s perceived professorial elitism, Americans will increasingly distrust candidates who appear too articulate or intelligent. Instead of dismissing it as the folly of uneducated masses, those who believe in government as a positive force in American life must take this distrust seriously and begin to rebuild our faith in the virtue of reason. Otherwise, populist passions of all stripes will continue to triumph over sober and sensible policymaking.

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