Stupidity in politics. Whatever happened to education and expertise as admirable qualities?
Updated: Jan 5
Profiles in Ignorance: How America's Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber
Andy Borowitz 2022
"Facts are stupid things", Ronald Reagan
"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." George W. Bush
"Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!" Donald Trump
American leaders through history have been a mixed bag. For every Abraham Lincoln there are many mediocre presidents with limited qualifications and few accomplishments. Unfortunately, politics is not an aptitude or intelligence test- it's a battle of emotional triggers that cause voters to look to their guts and ignore their brains when casting a vote. Why do we keep choosing presidents and other politicians that would barely qualify for jobs where competence actually matters- like professions, teachers, or CEO's? Why do we settle for charismatic goofballs over egghead experts? And are our leaders getting dumber?
Andy Borowitz looks at this question in his latest book, Profiles in Ignorance, with a sweeping history of dumbness in politics from the last 75 years. Borowitz is a comedian by trade, and he peppers the book with much-needed humor to lighten the mood. He writes for the New Yorker magazine, travels on comedy tours, and is a prolific social media contributor, always looking for ways to poke fun at today's politicians. Though he comes from a left-of-center perspective, he pokes at Democrats when he sees fit, including in this book.
According to Borowitz, smarts and higher education are looked down upon today, replaced by outrage, faux-populism, and conspiracy theories. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were by all accounts intellectually curious and voracious readers, and that one habit led them to be wiser and more effective leaders. In this book, there are three stages of ignorance that led from the intellect of FDR to the proud ignorance of Donald Trump, and it all started to change in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. During the first stage, Ridicule, politicians tried hard to avoid appearing stupid or uninformed. Back then, politicians were actually called out on it, and Borowitz points to unfortunates like Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle as examples. Not knowing important facts ruined both of their political futures. But somehow Reagan escaped scrutiny because of his humor, charisma, and magnetic image, honed after many years in Hollywood. Borowitz tells disturbing stories of Reagan's astonishing simple-mindedness- from his lack of curiosity about anything to his constant rehashing of the same speech script for every appearance. Though many of the things Reagan spoke of turned out not to be true, few people called him on it, and if they did, he joked about it to turn the tables on his accusers.
Reagan was a breakthrough candidate, one who emphasized values and emotions over facts and numbers. He led the way to the second stage of ignorance- Acceptance. In this stage, stupid politicians were okay to support as long as they passed the beer test- would they be fun to sit and have a beer with? With that as the test, George W. Bush easily passed over the wonky Al Gore, (even though history shows the result as inconclusive). W went on to be a mediocre president not known for his knowledge or curiosity. Bush, like Reagan, surrounded himself with smarter people like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld, so that he could enjoy the perks of presidency without having to do the hard work. Bush notoriously failed a journalist' list of questions of world leaders, and was able to bring the public to his side for being ignorant. For some unknown reason, presidents were no longer expected to know things; they were "big picture" ideologues who relied on staff for the details.
Borowitz goes on to detail the exploits of another politician who exploited emotions and ignorance and almost made it- Sarah Palin. The fact that Palin was able to avoid most of the serious vetting that any vice-presidential candidate usually gets points to the vapid qualifications for today's new leaders- they need to be attractive, loud, and able to stir up the base. Whether they know anything is not relevant, but Palin's proud ignorance eventually failed in the face of her own incompetence.
Throughout this book the author paints a picture of Democratic politicians who were almost too smart for their own good. By stressing intellect, they failed to engage emotionally with an American public that needed the assurance that their president cared about them. This includes people like Adlai Stevenson, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton. The few smart ones that broke through (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter) needed economic crises and emotional smarts to do it. Many Americans eventually resented people like Obama, who they saw as smarter and more educated than them, which led to the third stage of ignorance- Celebration.
In Borowitz's third stage, ignorance is a plus, and education is a minus. Even the smart politicians had to de-emphasize their education and credentials. Though Americans of the 21st century were easily more educated than those of the 20th century, mysteriously they looked down at those who appeared to be too smart and elitist for their tastes. The Covid-19 epidemic became less of an exercise in following the science and more of an exercise in following your gut. With the usual experts- media, scientists, academics- in low regard, the rapidly growing world of social media became dominated by conspiracy theorists, foreign government tricksters, and extremists. Into that chasm came Donald J. Trump, who embodied the third stage perfectly with his prolific lies, exaggerations, and alternative facts.
Borowitz goes into detail about how each of the prototypes of their stages got into office and how they behaved while there. It isn't pretty. In fact, for those of us who lived through all of those presidencies, it's damned depressing. You'd like to think that the people leading us are the smartest, wisest, hardest-working, and most conscientious among us, but you'd be wrong. Time after time, we choose leaders who are crooks, morons, and scoundrels, and we fail to hold them accountable. Thankfully, the humor of this book counteracts the outrage that one feels when seeing the unfairness that our supposedly meritocratic system keeps justifying.
The book ends with a call to action in a chapter called "Democracy's Braking System." Borowitz accurately points out that for all of the stupid leaders we have had, somehow America has survived almost 250 years when smart leaders like Lincoln and FDR came forward and saved us from ourselves. He urges us to become active locally, to hold leaders accountable, and stop being armchair politicos with tweets and posts that accomplish nothing. The work of honoring knowledge and learning is hard, and requires both intelligence and honest emotions to win the day. He points to people like Stacy Abrams, who transformed Georgia from a typical southern state that celebrated racists to one that holds meaningful elections and challenges politicians to prove their worth.
Is America dumber than ever? We're more educated than ever, and there are more of us, so why do we tolerate stupidity and ignorance in leaders? These leaders take us off the hook by giving us easy answers to difficult questions. Racism? Climate Change? Inequality? Not a problem. Illegal immigrants- now they are the source of most of your problems! Ignorant leaders also make us feel like they're one of us with their lack of qualifications, even though with their wealth and power we can never hope to have that beer with them.
Borowitz argues that we need leaders who are smarter than we are, which makes sense in almost any arena- business, education, medicine, and certainly government. We need expertise, curiosity, and competence to handle the hardest decisions, especially in the thorny, complicated world of politics. But smarts are not everything. Some of the smartest people in the world can be narcissists, sociopaths, and detached from reality due to their superior intellects (see Silicon Valley for many examples). Ideally, intelligence must be partnered with humility and empathy to keep leaders accountable, morally centered, and open to input from those who are not as gifted. It's a tricky mixture of competence and humility that gives the best leaders the confidence to lead plus the curiosity to learn.
I enjoyed this humorous walk through the history of bad leaders, and it made me even more determined to hold myself and others to a higher standard.
The Borowitz Report can be found at the New Yorker website
Here is a you tube video of the comedian in action