Apr/May 2009  •   Salon

Tired of Being with Stupid

by Tom Dooley

America has long been blessed with its share of boors, malignant and benign. The fanny pack has been in existence for most of my adult life, along with its stereotypical wearer: the corpulent, "I'm with Stupid" tee-shirt-wearing, loud-mouthed American tourist. But only in the past decade has "Stupid" become a prerequisite for political office. In the George W. Bush era, people rallied around the Stupid banner. It should therefore come as no surprise that our politics as a whole have become boorish. And while people like James Carville and Rod Blagojevich have done their part to make boorishness a bipartisan enterprise, I lay the bulk of blame on the conservative wing of the Republican party.

It's a potent brew, what conservatives have whipped up in this country. There are different kinds of conservatives: fiscal, religious, national security, gun-owning, game-hunting, rich and poor, suburban and rural, and let's not forget the racists, what with hate group membership going through the roof. The thing they have in common is fear. Fear of the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Of not getting what they've got coming to them. Of losing what they have. Fear of God. Of dying. Of being made to feel inferior.

How did the conservatives get so crass? What happened to the Republicans of decades past, men like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, heck, even John McCain, who to his credit at times looked downright uncomfortable dealing with his own supporters this past election? The answer lies, I believe, in our two-party system. America is by necessity a political melting pot, even more so than it ever was a racial or ethnic one, because while other democracies have several if not numerous parties where people of various creeds can find a home, here there really are only two viable parties, and so they both must serve as "big tents." In order for the big tent of the Republican party to house the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, with plenty of folks in between, something must be done to galvanize them. The more disparate the constituents and their motives, the more schizophrenic must be the lies employed to confuse them. The more fear, greed, pride, and other base instincts must be used to manipulate them. The greater the need for stupidity and willful ignorance.

In fairness, the Democratic party only differs from their GOP brethren by degrees. Both parties are self-serving and corrupt, but the Democrats are not so much dishonest and schizophrenic as they are disingenuous and hubristic. Democrats appeal to wealthy philanthropists, celebrities, and intellectuals with their promise that government can solve all problems if the people in charge are clever enough, and they appeal to poor people who, either out of tragedy, bad luck, lack of ability, or laziness, find themselves desperate for someone to provide those solutions. In what makes for a lesser degree of hypocrisy, both ends of the Democratic party's socio-economic spectrum are at least seeking the same results, usually involving a more significant role for the federal government.

Republicans, meanwhile, appeal to the super wealthy who wish to protect and expand their holdings and power; the moderately well-off desiring fewer obstacles in their path to becoming more wealthy; and poor, morality-driven people who can't abide gay marriage, gun control, abortion rights, or the lack of prayer in school. How these things translate into a unified front is one of the (anti?) miracles of modern politics, orchestrated by such alchemists as Karl Rove and various neo-conservative think-tankers.

The real coup that enabled Republicans to enjoy a couple decades of power from the Reagan years through the second half of G.W. Bush's second term was when suburban, mostly white voters were convinced it had come down to a battle between them and mostly black and Latino urban dwellers for cultural supremacy. While their children embraced hip hop and gangsta memes, these white suburbanites looked further outward from the city centers, downloaded classic rock and country music onto their PC's, drove monstrous gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, and tried to convince themselves their square, white-bread existences were somehow salt of the Earth. Who better to lead them than a C-student, Harvard MBA, East Coast blueblood, ex-cheerleader turned Texas brush clearin' good ol' boy?

Part subterfuge, part self-delusion, and part genuine ignorance, the conservative Republican bloc of good ol' boy sensibilities held sway until a requisite percentage of "independent" voters finally drank the Kool-aid. Kool-aid in this case being some kind of inoculation against the politics of stupidity and fear.

Whatever that inoculation was, it was probably temporary. The best long-term cure for stupidity, to borrow a page from the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind, but applying it to the government as a whole, is higher standards and accountability for meeting those standards. Embracing higher standards and accountability means giving up any notion that Joe the Plumber is a role model.

Speaking as someone who grew up in a log cabin with no electricity or running water about 250 miles north of Wasilla, Alaska, who became a lifetime member of the NRA before he was in high school, and who proudly works for the Department of Defense, I submit that the time has come to rehabilitate the word "elite." To dust off the term "respected." To embrace competency, salute achievement, and celebrate excellence. We may not all be perfect. In fact, none of us, including our politicians, can or should be. But we should demand from both ourselves and our leaders a minimum level of decorum, and we always ought to reach, to strive to be better than we suspect we are. Scandalous behavior, general incompetence, and even bad luck should be neither tolerated, excused, nor rewarded. Doesn't mean we have to persecute the slow-witted, the sycophants, or people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They just don't need to be tolerated, excused, or above all, given cabinet positions and Presidential Medals of Freedom.

I really believe at the heart of improving any area of American life is the need to reverse the trend we've seen in American politics—and really, American society—away from classical liberalism (i.e., Thomas Jefferson) and toward the churlish, uneducated, bullying, sensationalist, tabloid, soundbite, attack-ad, deep-fried, low-calorie, super-sized, schizophrenic, I'm worth it, plausible deniability, swiftboat, Sarah Palin kind of approach.

Last year the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force resigned at the invitation of their boss, Secretary of Defense Gates. It was a welcome breath of fresh air to our nation's government. Not because these two gentlemen were bad guys. By all accounts, they were tremendous public servants, and the events leading to their resignation—having to do with poor stewardship of our nuclear weapons inventory—were not directly their fault. Not their fault, but their responsibility. The idea of a government official, military or otherwise, even admitting mistakes were made, let alone taking responsibility for something bad happening on his or her watch: it seemed like a desperately needed miracle.

Only through increased accountability from the top down and the bottom up will we reverse the trend in America toward the kind of incompetence and stupidity so brilliantly skewered in the 2006 film Idiocracy. The responsibility lies with our leaders, but even more crucially, it lies with each of us citizens, who must recognize it is our contribution—both in terms of our own stupidity and that which we tolerate in others—that in the aggregate will bring our country success or tragedy in the years to come. We made a huge step in the right direction when we elected Barack Obama to the White House, and we must not allow the partisan nitpicking and truth-twisting of tools like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to make us cynical, apathetic, scared, or divided, but we must also demand the Obama administration lives up to its promises and its promise. If not, we'll just be a different kind of stupid.