“Stupid” and Political Judgment

Supporters of Sarah Palin cheer her appearance on the Sean Hannity Show, Iowa State Fair, August 2011. (Getty Images via NYRB)

Two recent articles, one by David Weigel in Slate, and the other a blog post by the august poet Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books, converge in a new way on an old problem famously articulated by Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Simic, particularly, should have re-read this aphorism before ranting about the ignorance of conservative voters after the Mississippi and Alabama Republican primaries. Unfortunately, Weigel’s account is hardly better. In an attempt to demonstrate his equitable bona fides, he displays an aloof parachute punditry by bragging that he “trekked to Mississippi and Alabama last weekend for a few stories about the primaries.”  This off-hand characterization of two American states as if they were part of the Transkei said plenty about his political and cultural distance from Southern voters.

Both Weigel and Simic (and Alexandra Pelosi, the documentary filmmaker and daughter of the former Democratic House Speaker) were appalled by the ignorance displayed by the voters they interviewed.  Some still believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, or a foreigner, or worse. Some believe global warming is a hoax. Some believe the President and Congress are out to get their guns. And so on. Simic crankily includes a list of the ridiculous things these stupid people believe.

The inverse of these misapprehensions, of course, is that they are the opposite of beliefs closely held by Democrats or liberals. In other words, these people stupidly disbelieve things Democrats care deeply about. President Obama is not a Muslim, but his middle name is Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an exalted Shia martyr; we take pride in his heritage and not a little pleasure demonstrating to the Arab and Muslim world that we elected a man by his name so soon after George W. Bush.  We believe global warming is not only a reality but a dire planetary threat derived from our current way of life. And we believe that sensible control of firearms will lead to dramatically fewer deaths in this country.

So would it perhaps be more fair to include a list of the stupid things that Democrats and liberals have believed over the years?  Of course.  But that would defeat the notion that conservatives are stupid and liberals and Democrats are smart. This was the point of a recent scientific study linking low intelligence and prejudice in conservatives and neatly debunked by Doonesbury.

But “stupid” misses the point.  What this focus on informed intelligence ignores is a factor far more important to democracy.  That is the complex concept of political judgment, and when we talk about that then we are on much more difficult ground. Because then we can take all those issues Simic lists as lies and reframe them as judgments.  And the discussion becomes far more fraught and ambiguous as a result.

Of course you would never say something so stupid as these people. Unless it was about the surge in Iraq.  Or Libya, in which case you can send Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy a note explaining why you were so stupid.  He has compiled a list of 10 major writers who  got Libya wrong from the start.

This is the perilous nature of political judgment, the spooky art of getting it right without knowing everything. This is the defining attribute of applied politics. Judgment can be informed by facts and more facts, but in the end there is something about predicting and shaping the future that cannot be formed by mere fact.  The seemingly ignorant, therefore, can exercise extraordinary judgment — Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman were among these — and the extremely intelligent informed often render impossibly improvident judgment (Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson come to mind).

It’s interesting to note that  Obama has radically (if, perhaps, subtly) refocused the debate on qualifications for the Presidency to include judgment.  He began this in 2008, when it clearly served him in two ways — he could sidestep the accusation that he didn’t have as much “experience” as the other candidates, while focusing on the “record” of the others. Traditionally “experience” and “record” are the means by which we measure our candidates for office.  But for the first time in my political life, a candidate was insisting that he be evaluated based on his judgment — in effect, his ability to predict the future.  And in that case, his judgment was on the case for war in Iraq. His main rivals had voted for the war, he had opposed it, and he hung that vote around their necks.

Obama’s reelection campaign video, released this month, focuses on his accomplishments during his first term, but they are similarly if subtly couched as examples of his judgment.  With the GM bailout, the bin Laden targeting, and health care reform, Obama exercised keen judgment — and particularly in the case with the bailout and health care, he will hang his rival’s opposition to them around his neck. Instead of fighting a protracted fight over the state of the economy, he will ask the question: Does my opponent have the judgment required to be President? (After selling out GM, doubtful.)

To return to the benighted voters of the American south, the scribes have simply asked them the wrong questions. Democracy is not just a series of applied facts.  It is a matter of applied judgment.  And the experience of these communities is unique in America. Ask someone in the rural south what war means to them, because their towns and villages disproportionately send young men and women into the armed services to fight. Ask them what faith means to them, because they are disproportionately religious. Ask residents of the Gulf Coast what energy and environmentalism means to them after the BP oil spill.  Ask them what the economy means to them, because they are disproportionately unemployed.  Ask them what education means to their children, because they are disproportionately undereducated. All of that experience informs their judgment.

So coming after guns is one thing, but modeling policy for effective gun control is quite another. Global warming is one concern, but the complex application of new and very likely costly technologies is a legitimate political debate that we simply haven’t had.  Talking about the nature of faith in the public square continues to be important and has been since the drafting of our constitution.

But to imply as these three writers have that certain citizens are too dim for our republic harkens to a dark age when literacy tests, property requirements and poll taxes were legal necessities for admission to suffrage. Democracy hasn’t always been understood as the extraordinary judgment applied by ordinary citizens.  But only through the American experiment have we proved this to be true.


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