Saturday, August 4, 2012

Political Smarts

There’s a man named Chris Langan who is smarter than anyone you’ve ever met.  He’s so smart researchers have to invent new IQ tests to try and quantify his intelligence.  There’s a great Errol Morris documentary about him you can see on youtube here.

At one point in the interview he announces one of the big problems with modern societies is that politicians are all stupid, “el stupido” as he puts it.  He then goes to outline his own ideas for a more rational, better type of society.  The problem here is it’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s just that people have been whining about this for about 20,000 years.  And don’t think they weren’t, I bet the Israelites were about 10 days into wandering the wilderness before people started grumbling about how dumb Moses was.  

“If Aaron was in charge we would have found Zion by now.”

“He makes us leave so fast we don’t even have time to bake bread!  But he doesn’t even know where the Promised Land is!”

Stuff like that.  I’m sure.  The idea that intelligence is some sort of sufficient component of successful political leadership is totally wrong.  Intelligence might help you succeed in politics but intelligence without wisdom, morality and prudence can be more highly destructive than stupidity.  Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover were both highly intelligent men, but as political leaders they were disasters.  Look and Jimmy Carter before his presidency.  This was a man who was a nuclear engineer and a Captain of an attack submarine to boot.  Yet from an objective stance his Presidency was a lurching series of political disasters which culminated in a challenge for the nomination from inside his own party and a re-election effort that culminated in the worst showing of an elected incumbent president since Herbert Hoover.  Ronald Reagan was a highly successful president, that is from an object political standpoint, whose important intellectual qualifications included playing the straight man for a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo.  From an intelligence stand point a visitor from Mars would probably pick Carter to be the success and Reagan the flop, but the opposite occurred.   

Secondly, blaming stupidity often becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  If things are going well it’s because of how smart so and so is, then when problems arise suddenly that person is revealed to be a moron.  The problem here is that the genius and moron are the same person.  You see this phenomenon in how George W. Bush was depicted by a lot of journalists and public intellectuals during his presidency.  He was often portrayed as a shrewd, capable political leader overcoming all obstacles-even Andrew Sullivan wrote about how he was a genius-and then he suddenly became a bubbling moron sometime a few weeks after Stephen Colbert made fun of him in the summer of 2006.  But it’s not like he suffered massive brain trauma right before then.  The actual man George W. Bush was a complex person with conflicting traits, that is he was like any other normal person.  He was someone who was both intelligent and shockingly ignorant about all sorts of things.  He could ruthlessly exploit political opportunities while allowing himself to be manipulated by the outsized role of his Vice President.  Cheney was able to convince Bush that him, and only him, should be able to assemble all sorts of briefing materials and summarize what other White House staffers where saying in written reports.  He thus could edit out material that might cause Bush to question a course of action, as well as remove material that might indicate problems (hence “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!”).  That Bush could cleverly see how to use nationalism and fears of terrorism to gun up support for supply side tax cuts while not see, until the last years of his administration, what Cheney was doing is quite amazing.

To focus just on intelligence in our political leaders is to remove all sorts of qualities that are just as necessary for successful governance, which is why Moses didn’t have to be all that smart to still be an effective leader.  That said, I’m sure he did well on his SAT II’s.

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