TOPICS : Ignorance pays off in US poll booth

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind’s closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist? Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge.

Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage. There have been exceptions over the past century — Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived — but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan’s response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter — stumbling a little, using long words — carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said: “There you go again.”

The founding fathers of the republic — Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others — were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin? On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion — in particular fundamentalist religion — makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing. Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance. — The Guardian