Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why is being smart a bad thing?

As the primary season dwindles to a close, I find myself thinking about a perennial issue in American politics --  the way some politicians play to that portion of the electorate who appear to believe well-educated, well-spoken, and generally smart candidates are somehow a bad thing.

We all know the drill: Candidate Not-My-Guy is an "elitist" -- political speak for "college educated know-it-all."  Somehow, implying someone is well-educated has become a short-hand way to disqualify him or her as a "representative of the people."  When you think about it, this is bizarre.  Do we really want our leaders to be uneducated buffoons?  (Okay, given the result of the last two presidential elections, maybe we do, but still.)  When did electing someone stupid to high office become a goal for America?  How did we end up in a situation where smart equals bad and dumb equals good?

This isn't a new phenomena.  The 19th Century gave us the "Know-Nothing" Party, and plenty of candidates for public office over the years have portrayed themselves as "just plain folks" in an effort to appeal to the masses.  But it seems to me this presents us with a larger set of contradictions  deeply woven into the fabric of American life.

We are, after all, a people who believe in upward mobility.  We want our children to do better than we did; we want them to achieve more, to be better educated, to be more successful -- in effect, to leave us behind.  (Of course, there are parents who don't want this for their children, who feel threatened by their sons or daughters' achievements, and resent it when their kids try to better themselves.  Let's leave them out of this -- they don't deserve our consideration.)  Most parents want their children to get a good education; most are willing to make tremendous financial sacrifices to see it happen.  And when their children do achieve this kind of success, these parents burst with pride, and are delighted to tell everyone how wonderful their kids are, and how great they feel about their achievements.

So, on the one hand, we applaud education, we admire success, we take pleasure in academic achievement.

And, on the other hand, we resent paying taxes for public schools, we resent teachers for seeking higher salaries, we ridicule "eggheads" and "smarty-pants," and we act like an Ivy League education is a fatal sign of elitism and a disqualifier for the most important job in the country.

Does this make any sense to anyone?

There are those who'll try to make a distinction here: they'll claim the "elitist" label isn't a reference to the candidate's education, but to his "distance" from the lives of "ordinary Americans."  Please.  No politician who's risen to the level of being a serious candidate for higher office these days can ever be truly connected to the lives of "ordinary Americans."  The citizen candidate, plucked straight off the farm like Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra film, is long gone -- if he or she ever existed.  All political candidates for high office are, by definition, members of the elite.  Some just hide it better than others. 

(George W. Bush hid it better than his father, with his down-home Texas twang, his malapropisms and just-folks mannerisms; but the reality is, he was born with the proverbial golden spoon shoved up high where the sun don't shine, and he has as much in common with the average American as the average American has with a starving kid from Darfur.) 

Sometimes, you've got to wonder...

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