The Triumph of Ignorance: How
Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics
by George Monbiot
www.alternet.org, October 31,
How was it allowed to happen? How did
politics in the United States 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
is a Muslim and a terrorist?
Like most people on this side of the Atlantic,
I have spent my adult life mystified by American politics. The
United States 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, Kennedy and 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." His own health program would have
appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter
had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political
issues and making his opponents look like wonks.
It wasn't always like this. The founding
fathers of the republic -- men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton --
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. U.S. education,
like the U.S. health system, is notorious for its failures. In
the most powerful nation on Earth, 1 adult in 5 believes the sun
revolves around the Earth; only 26 percent accept that evolution
takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young
adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of U.S. voters
cannot name the three branches of government; and the math skills
of 15-year-olds in the United States are ranked 24th out of the
29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
But this merely extends the mystery: How
did so many U.S. citizens become so dumb and so suspicious of
intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason
provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows
that the degradation of U.S. politics results from a series of
One theme is both familiar and clear:
Religion -- in particular fundamentalist religion -- makes you
stupid. The United States 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. During the first few decades after
the publication of Origin of Species, for example, Americans had
good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat
public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's
theory was mixed up in the United States with the brutal philosophy
-- now known as Social Darwinism -- of the British writer Herbert
Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with
the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller
and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top
of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit
people from being weeded out, government intervention weakened
the nation, according to the doctrine; gross economic inequalities
were both justifiable and necessary.
Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable
to the public from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics.
Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic
that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists
as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking
of the Christian Right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science
of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of Social
But there were other, more powerful reasons
for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The United
States is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local
authorities. Teaching in the Southern states was dominated by
the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great
educational gulf opened up. "In the South," Jacoby writes,
"what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was
imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the
The Southern Baptist Convention, now the
biggest Protestant denomination in the United States, was to slavery
and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid
in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep
the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation
by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities.
A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree
without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs
pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey
by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that 1
in 4 of the state's public school biology teachers believed that
humans and dinosaurs lived on Earth at the same time.
This tragedy has been assisted by the
American fetishization of self-education. Though he greatly regretted
his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly
cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state,
is unnecessary; all that is required to succeed is determination
and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when
genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the
Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were
in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.
Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps
the most potent reason why 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. Almost every day, men like Rush
Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites"
The specter of pointy-headed alien subversives
was crucial to the elections of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual
elite -- like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding
Bush -- has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle
between ordinary Americans and an overeducated pinko establishment.
Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the right-wing elite has
been successfully branded as elitism.
Obama has a good deal to offer America,
but none of this will come to an end if he wins. Until the great
failures of the U.S. education system are reversed or religious
fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities
for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.