Monday, September 29, 2008

Embracing Stupidity

When I was a kid, the Republicans were the party for small businessmen and corporations. They were essentially the Fortune 500 Party. What was good for business was good for America and that was that. With the Nixon presidency, the party grew by embracing the racists in the South who had become disenchanted with Democrats and their egalitarian ways. It became the party of business and Southern crackers. From a political standpoint, the "Southern strategy" garnered the Republicans a critical block of votes; on the other hand embracing stupid racists meant that the collective IQ of the Republican Party went down a notch.

This collection of business people and racists was the new Republican Party until sometime around the Reagan years when two new groups were added, the Reagan Democrats and the Evangelicals. These two new groups, one from the North and the other newly politically active and predominately from exurbia and rural areas, also had a racist tinge. They were also dumber than the original Fortune 500 and small business group and the Republican Party's collective IQ went down yet further.

All of this pandering to the lowest of the low had a profound implication. The Republican Party didn't just become dumber. It became proud of its ignorance. Conservative ideology was turned on its head; it meant a spending free for all mixed with low taxes, Bible thumping, and frequent wars with perceived enemies. What was once a sane group turned outright crazy (OK, you've probably figured out by now that I'm not a Republican.). The old Republican guard in their blue wool suits either became dismayed or tried to pretend that the mess wasn't there.

The Republican Party also finally became very popular. Not only would the Republicans win most presidential elections, but for about a decade they would control Congress.

How did this happen? How did the lunatics take over the insane asylum? There are a lot of theories out there. My own view is that what happened was that social change in this country was very dramatic in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was so dramatic that a lot of people couldn't cope. Blacks suddenly had access to power and money. Women suddenly had to be treated like human beings. Wide-spread birth control changed sexual dynamics dramatically. In response, a good segment of the American public not only dug in its heels but went backward both socially and religiously. Some embraced crazy fundamentalist (I realize that using crazy and fundamentalist together is being redundant) religions. Plus everybody loves low taxes as long as they continue to get their government benefits.

In my view, idiosyncratic I know, there was a parallel between what was happening in Iran and what was happening in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. In both places, a sizable segment of the public was repulsed by modernization. In response, both went backwards. For Iran of course the changes were far more dramatic. They had their Ayatollah. We had our "Ayatollah Lite," Ronald Reagan. He wasn't very bright, but he was charismatic. His cheery disposition hid his backwards nature. The Party of Stupidity turned the US into the Country of Stupidity.

Ronald Reagan was preceded by Jimmy Carter. It's ironic that Carter was essentially drummed out of office by the actions of Iran who held American hostages through the election to ensure that Carter would lose. Carter was a lousy president. But one thing he did not promote was stupidity. Trained as an engineer, he was strongly pro-intellectual and pro-science. That all disappeared with Reagan.

Carter worked on energy independence. Reagan was so vehement in his refusal to do anything about our energy usage that he literally tore the solar panels installed by the Carter administration off the roof of the White House. Carter worked on the US joining the rest of the world in going metric. Reagan killed that idea. There are now only two countries in the world that use English units: the US and Liberia. We now waste our money manufacturing to two different specifications (one that we use and the other that everyone else uses) and have to have two sets of tools to fix anything. We are truly the country of stupidity.

With Reagan the era of blue sky scientific discovery came to an end in this country. National Science Foundation budgets stagnated and the mission of NSF moved from promoting high risk work to tried and true applied research. Efforts to promote alternative energy in other aspects of science and engineering funding were quashed. The role of scientists in governmental decision making was diminished. We started to lose our world-wide lead in supercomputing, nuclear physics and elsewhere.

What was promoted instead to the dismay of the scientific community was "Star Wars," a hypothetical missile defense system that was just plain loopy.

The Republican Party likes to deride intellectuals. They go on and on about how snobby and smug they are. I think that they are mostly thinking about English college professors when they go off on one of their "I hate intellectuals" riffs. But they've thrown out the baby with the bath water. In their hatred of all things intellectual, they've not only made English professors miserable (and as far as I'm concerned maybe that's not a bad idea); they've ruined our scientific and engineering competitiveness.

We've lost our scientific edge in much of biology because George W. Bush made use of stem cells difficult. We've further lost our lead in supercomputing and nuclear physics. Our state universities, which provided our country with top notch scientific research and a top notch science and engineering workforce, have been increasingly squeezed financially. Educationally we have stagnated and tests of undergraduates suggest they know less than they did twenty years ago.

When a country is run by a party that embraces fundamentalist religion and is profoundly anti-intellectual (the two do go hand in hand, you know) you have nowhere to go but down. And that's what we've been doing for the last seven years.

This election the Republicans had a chance to redefine themselves for the better. Instead of continuing to embrace stupidity, they could have started to rebuild their party in a way that was far less parochial. Their leader, John McCain, was poised to do just that. But then he choked. Instead he let stupidity reign supreme.

He selected as VP a sweetheart of the ignorant, anti-intellectual wing of the party, someone who makes George W. Bush seem like Einstein (and don't forget that George W. Bush makes Ronald Reagan seem like Einstein; we keep going lower and lower). The Republicans are now, instead of trying to run on the future, retreating to the culture wars of the 1990s. They seem happy that their VP candidate is ignorant. Hell, this group would probably happily elect the Beverly Hillbillies to the White House. They even love the new VP candidate's ignorant redneck husband.

The Democrats did the equivalent stupid thing in 1972 with McGovern. They went out on a limb to support their extremists. It didn't work. This won't work either. One day the Republicans will come to their senses. They'll stop embracing stupidity. But I'm not holding my breath as to when it will happen.

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