Over the past decade or so, presidential figures on the Republican side have displayed a gobsmacking degree of know-nothingness. Remarkably, each new incarnation is seemingly more cartoonish and two-dimensional than the last. This is not to say that there are not policy wonks on the Republican side, just that they do not usually win national elections.
Besides his penchant for butchering the English language, President George W. Bush frequently demonstrated a very tenuous grasp of international and national affairs, which had real world consequences. Most strikingly, it was revealed that in the run-up to the Iraq war, GW did not know that the Muslim population of Iraq were divided into Shi’a and Sunni sects—knowledge that might have aided the U.S. in preventing or containing the subsequent civil war and ethnic cleansing.
Throughout his eight years in office, Dubya’s lack of interest in his job meant that his advisors were forced to compile one-page briefs on problems as thorny as the invasion of Iraq or responding to Iran’s nuclear capabilities just to ensure that he would read them. In the final two years of his presidency, Bush disengaged from the prosecution of the Iraqi war and occupation altogether, leaving critical policy decisions to his subordinates.
Christopher Hitchens, an Iraq war supporter and staunch neo-conservative, called Bush "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things."
George Bush’s lack of policy interest and questionable work ethic were entirely predictable—Dubya was a self-declared slacker throughout school and actually bragged of the Cs he’d received as a Yale University undergrad. With below-average college grades, he was turned down by the University of Texas Law School before mysteriously being admitted to the Harvard MBA program (legacy points, anyone?) In the decades that followed, he dabbled in politics and had a couple failed business ventures—spending much of his 30s drinking and partying before cleaning up his act at age 40.
Dubya’s career had notable parallels with other Republican vice presidents and presidential candidates, including Dick Cheney, who barely bothered to go to class and ultimately flunked out of Yale (to which he'd gained admittance through personal connections). Upon returning to Wyoming, he proceeded to rack up two DUIs, while continuing to defer his military service to Vietnam. Then there was John McCain, who, though a son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, graduated at nearly the bottom of his class at Annapolis (894th out of 899) and chose a career of politics when it became clear that he would never have a distinguished career in the Navy. More committed to beer-drinking and skirt-chasing, McCain was a dangerously poor pilot and crashed several planes before embarking on his tour of duty in Vietnam.
Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick in the 2008 elections, first caught the public eye not for her leadership or student activism, but as a beauty pageant contestant in Alaska. She was mostly known as an athlete in high school and spent six years at four different educational institutions (only two of them universities) before finally graduating with a degree in journalism. She then worked briefly as a sportscaster before settling down to help her husband’s business in commercial fishing. Palin is famously disinterested in policy. As late as the 2008 race, Sarah Palin revealed she had never heard of the Bush doctrine. According to McCain’s campaign staff, she also reportedly thought that Africa was a country and not a continent, could not name the three members of NAFTA, and did not know why there were two Koreas. Despite her stunning ignorance of history and politics, Palin refused to prep for interviews or debates on the campaign trail, choosing to spend her time fretting about her public image and whether she was getting fat.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth, 2012 GOP Frontrunner Michele Bachman went to a Christian college before enrolling in a Bible-based Coburn School of Law founded by televangelist Oral Roberts, now the Pat Robertson's Regent University School of Law. Today it is in the bottom tier of law schools, ranked 136th in the country.
Bachman and Palin have made successive public demonstrations of their clownishness, routinely rolling out inaccurate statements about history and current affairs that are generously dismissed in the media as “gaffes.” Strangest of all, given their passionate identification with the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, both women have (without the help of the “gotcha media”) revealed their shallow grasp of American history, between them declaring that the Revolutionary War started in Connecticut rather than Massachusetts, that Paul Revere warned the British that the British were coming, and that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery.”
…and Wonkish, Overachiever Democrats
What a difference from Democratic presidents and presidential candidates of the previous two decades. According to Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid, Bill Clinton "became known as a 'policy wonk,' a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking." Throughout his eight years in office, Clinton read voraciously and involved himself in the intricate details of policy planning. He was known for waking his advisors at 4 a.m. to ask them about some detail in a policy brief he was reading. Whatever one thinks of his moral character, Clinton was no intellectual slouch. He rose above an impoverished childhood and an alcoholic stepfather to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, a graduate from Georgetown University and Yale Law, and a constitutional law professor before being elected governor of Arkansas and later president of the United States.
Hillary Clinton more than held her own in that Washington power couple. As an undergrad at Wellesley, she was president of the Young Republicans, but stepped down due to her changing views on civil rights. She worked on McCarthy’s campaign for president, organized anti-war protests, and was elected president of the Wellesley College Government Association. She received a law degree from Yale University where she served on the editorial board of the Yale Law Review. Hillary and Bill worked together on McGovern’s presidential campaign, and published a legal article in the Harvard Educational Review. In her tenure as a New York Senator, Hillary gained a reputation for being every bit as smart, ambitious, and wonkish as Bill.
Our current president is made from the same mold. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he served as the first editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year, and was selected as the first African-American president of the Review in his second. He worked for twelve years as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, simultaneously organizing voting drives in his work as a civil rights attorney. A colleague recalled Obama’s focus on detail as a state senator as follows: “He was a real policy wonk, a roll-your-sleeves-up cross-the-t’s and dot-the-i’s legislator. He loved getting stuck into the details and nitty-gritty negotiating solutions to complicated issues like racial profiling.” As president, Obama has proven a hands-on negotiator on legislation ranging from the economic stimulus package to comprehensive health care reform to omnibus budget deals.
Vice President Biden is himself an unsurpassed (some would say needlessly verbose) foreign policy wonk. Former Vice President Al Gore distinguished himself in his years in the Senate as a peerless advocate for climate change legislation--holding the first congressional hearings on global warming before it was widely recognized as a problem; he was an early promoter of high-speed telecommunications and internet technologies in the late 1970s and later championed the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Whatever you think about this latest generation of Democratic leaders, they can hardly be labeled slackers.
Liberal Science versus Conservative Common Sense
Conservatives used to rail against liberal educational reforms (see John Dewey) that purportedly led to lowered educational standards, automatic advancement, and high school graduates who lacked rudimentary skills in maths, science, history and English. This attitude is still widely held in the conservative base: while campaigning on the problem of poorly educated youngsters, Teapublican GOP Presidential Contender Rick Santorum recently revealed that he might himself benefit from a remedial course in arithmetic.
The truth is that today’s conservatives have become the thing they most despised—an I’m-okay-you’re-okay politically-correct people that sneers at academic achievement and elite universities, apparently believing that any number of ordinary, patriotic Americans would make terrific U.S. presidents. Some right-wingers have gone so far as to reconfigure educational standards to coincide with their own understanding of intelligence and knowledge. Knowledge must not be the preserve of “liberal elites and scientists” who conspire to indoctrinate their children with secular humanism. In the conservative worldview, the best you can do to fix the economy is to get out of the way of business; all it takes to run the richest, most powerful country in the world is belief in God, common sense, and perhaps some business experience (fealty to corporate America goes without saying).
GOP common sense is really very simple. As Ronald Reagan put it: “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Therefore, sizing down the federal government and reducing taxes should do the trick as regards the economy. Teapublican common sense tells us that if we simply drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), our national waters, and national parks, we will have all the energy we need. It also tells us that we have to fight the bad guys wherever they are in the world so we don't have to fight them at home, that torture is the best way of getting actionable information from terror suspects, and that climate change is a hoax perpetrated on the American people by liberal scientists looking to advance their careers by cooking the books.
Right-wing Populism and Left-wing Technocracy
Because the real brain-center of the GOP has no governing philosophy other than continuing corporate give-aways at the expense of the welfare state, it uses right-wing populism to attract the vote of their target electorate--angry middle and lower-middle class white people who are convinced that minorities, feminists, liberal elites, and immigrants are to blame for their stagnating living standards. Right-wing discourse is America's populist discourse, now at a fevered pitch.
According to Wikipedia, populism ”a type of discourse, i.e., of sociopolitical thought that compares "the people" against "the elite.” It is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as "political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people's needs and wishes". It is designed to appeal to the masses, to the "people" as such, regardless of class distinctions and political partisanship—"a folksy appeal to the 'average guy' or some allegedly general will."”
The difference between right-wing and left-wing populism turns on their answer to one question: Who is the “average guy” and who is the “elite”?
Left-wing American populism grew out of collective frustrations by farmers and working people against monopolistic price-fixing by the railway magnates and the exploitative policies by bankers at the turn of the twentieth century. The average people were the working class; the elites were the captains of industry. It had no overt racial angle, although class lines coincided significantly with ethnic divisions. The populist movement finally found its patron saint in Teddy Roosevelt (first a Republican president and later the leader of the Progressive Party). While president, Teddy pushed through Progressive policies by introducing regulation of food and drugs; he also famously took on oil and railroad monopolies through trust-busting. These populist impulses found their ultimate expression in FDR’s New Deal policies and, later on, Johnson’s War on Poverty. Until the 1980s, the Democratic base consisted of average working people and immigrants fighting for a decent wage and working conditions as well as a chance for upward mobility.
In right-wing American populist discourse, we are through the looking glass. According to this narrative, the average people are native, white, middle and lower-middle class; the elites are the urban, secular, educated professionals who work as university professors and public school teachers. They are also government bureaucrats, psychologists and social workers, writers, artists, actors, and anyone else involved in vaguely Jewish-sounding professions. Confusingly, minorities are simultaneously privileged (through affirmative action) and also to blame for inner-city poverty, degeneracy, and crime. Gays and lesbians are implicated in the destruction of America’s families by promoting the “homosexual lifestyle” in public schools and defiling the sanctity of traditional marriage. The class wars of left-wing populism have been replaced by the culture wars of right-wing populism--a phenomenon ably described in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Why did right-wing populism replace left-wing populism? Basically because the Democratic Party lost its working class base with deunionization and other economic changes of the mid-twentieth century, making the Party increasingly reliant on an educated, cosmopolitan professional class. The Democratic Party has accordingly transformed itself to reflect its new base using a new language of internationalism and technocracy that could be transplanted with ease anywhere in the world.
The median traits of the two parties’ base are reflected in the preferred candidates for national office. The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, with few exceptions, increasingly mirror their respective median voters—Republican candidates are religious, suspicious of foreigners and intellectuals, they are folksy and speak in patriotic clichés. They are uninterested in policy or any other area of the intellectual elites. They perfectly mirror their constituents—white middle and lower-middle class voters. If their statements in the press defy the Washington consensus or mainstream media mores, then, far from disqualifying them, it can give them a leg-up with the conservative base.
Democratic presidential candidates, by contrast, tend to be policy wonks; they get into the nitty-gritty details of their platforms, they were usually excellent students in school who went on to earn graduate degrees; they are overachievers and mostly hail from (or moved to) urban areas. They are pro-science, pro-technology, and globalist. They mirror the new-ish left-wing constituency—highly educated, socially liberal, cosmopolitan artists and writers, lawyers and teachers and other urban bobos.
Is Right-wing Populism Really New?
Short answer: no. America’s right-wing populist discourse goes back at least as far as World War Two to the anti-communist, Red Scare baiters, John Birchers, Barry Goldwater supporters, and the like. However, this discourse was once a relatively marginal stream of the conservative movement and only very slowly crept into the mainstream. Today, however, it represents core GOP values. And that is what is new. This populist know-nothingness rejects anything that smacks of urbane slickness or overly pedantic responses to policy questions. Whereas Democrats increasingly opt for the most bland milquetoast technocrat (see Obama, Kerry, Gore) to attract the median Democratic voter (who respect skills, education and policy experience), the ideal Republican candidate must be (or seem to be) an average American—who has a passionate love for country, a lack of reverence for elitist institutions, and ideally a come-to-Jesus moment in their past. That candidate should be just like them, only with better hair.
What does it mean when the ideal-typical representatives of two halves of the country cannot speak to, much less understand, one another? Surely nothing auspicious for the future governance of this country.