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September 1, 2015

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Reveling in ignorance: Fashionable but dangerous

A friend of mine Facebooked this little dart of insight the other day: “America doesn’t need better leaders. It needs better followers.”

A little glib, sure, but dead-on about where we are as an electorate as the front bumper of Election Day bears down on us — accepting, often rewarding, even celebrating candidates and figureheads who espouse nut job views, reject legitimate expertise, embrace ignorance.

Obviously I’m talking about Sarah Palin, who, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says, “has made ignorance fashionable.”

Obviously I’m talking about Sharron Angle, whose comments about Second Amendment remedies and government as idolatry are only two exhibits on a long evidence table of ridiculousness.

Obviously, I’m talking about Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party Republican vying for a Senate seat in Delaware. She uncorked this stunner during a recent debate: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Never mind that you could stock a law library with the decisions and scholarship on this issue — the word “separation” doesn’t appear in the First Amendment. So O’Donnell, a major party’s candidate for a full-time job as a member of an incredibly select lawmaking body, had to ask.

In a reasonable world, we the people would have hooted these folks out of the public square. Instead, Palin’s making bank yowling “Obamacare” to cheering crowds. O’Donnell, behind in the polls, remains a Tea Party darling. And Angle, according to pollster Nate Silver, has the edge in Nevada. Accepted, rewarded, celebrated.

I get that people are confused and cheesed-off by the gridlock of status-quo politics. In a lot of cases, that’s not unreasonable.

But there’s a dangerous notion at work here, that the less tainted you are by actual knowledge of how government works, or by an accurate grasp of history, or by a belief in science, the better politician you’ll make. Empowered by gut feelings about right and wrong, you’ll barge into Congress and feed those D.C. slicksters a fresh batch of common sense.

It’s an appealing and very American trope, of course — the elevated everyman, the natural talent called out of the crowd to win the homecoming game — but it buys into a bogus notion of authenticity as the opposite of expertise. Thus the pervasive sense that many Tea Partyers and their leaders are smug about what they don’t know.

“It’s one thing to distrust expertise,” author Charles P. Pierce told me last year; he had just published “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.” It’s a terrific book that, among other things, reminds us that this kind of anti-intellectualism has had a long history, and many manifestations, in this country.

“It’s another thing,” he continues, “to simply say that because someone has spent his life dealing with something, he’s less to be relied upon than how I feel about it.”

Which, of course, is pretty much where we are. Yeats nailed it, all the way back in 1919, in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” (They should give him a show on CNN.)

This isn’t a brief in favor of incumbents. Experience doesn’t automatically render you useful. Newcomers with new ideas are fine; hell, they’re essential. But it’s also essential that they take the idea of governance seriously. Government is hard. It’s a hugely complex tangle of interlocking systems, protocols and processes. It needs serious people to make it work.

So when Sharron Angle offers a broad, categorical applause line like, “Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem,” she’s really describing a dead-end philosophy that won’t actually help anyone.

And yet: accepted, rewarded, celebrated.

My Facebook friend realizes, of course, that we do need better leaders, but that the ball is in the people’s court. We have to ask ourselves if the best way to get things done is by sending in people who don’t know how to do things.

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