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Ignorance is strength


Something that isn’t getting a lot of media attention is the campaign on the part of the right wingers who now control the SCOTUS to minimize the relevance of expertise to governmental decision-making. This Slate piece is a welcome exception to that generalization:

Notwithstanding the compelling arguments that extreme partisan gerrymanders violate the First and 14th amendments, the Supreme Court has long been reluctant to bless judicial intervention in this sphere for fear that courts will not be able to identify a manageable standard for deciding these cases. Here’s where the experts come in. Political scientists have developed ways to measure the effect of partisan gerrymandering and thereby show just how much extreme partisan gerrymanders can skew elections and harm voters.

When the court took up this issue last term, though, Chief Justice John Roberts derisively described these tools as “sociological gobbledygook.” Indeed, he went even further, expressing elaborate concern that the public wouldn’t trust judicial decisions that took account of such evidence:

“[I]f you’re the intelligent man on the street and the Court issues a decision, and let’s say the Democrats win, and that person will say: Well, why did the Democrats win? And the answer is going to be because EG was greater than 7 percent, where EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes. And the intelligent man on the street is going to say that’s a bunch of baloney.”

It’s not much of exaggeration to say that the Federalist Society exists to give a patina of intellectual respectability to this sort of idiocy, by cranking out self-confident monuments to the Dunning-Kruger effect who nevertheless possess lots of fancy-looking academic credentials, thus certifying their “brilliance.” (John Roberts has two degrees from Harvard).

And project Make America Dumb Again is having so much success because, over the course of the last several decades, the conservative movement has completely taken over the Republican party, and made anti-intellectualism one of the party’s core tenets:

The belief that the government should base its policy on neutral expertise dates back to the Progressive Era. The conservative movement has always recoiled at this model. Conservatives believed that elected officials ought to draw their guidance from the timeless limited-government values of the Constitution, which had been forgotten by the technocratic elites, but lived on in the simple values of ordinary people. A 1951 editorial in The Freeman, a conservative magazine, stated, “The truly appalling phenomenon is the irrationality of the college-educated mob that has descended upon Joseph R. McCarthy.” Ronald Reagan’s immortal “A Time for Choosing” speech declared the issue of the 1964 election to be “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

College-educated voters used to be a loyal Republican constituency. But the conservative movement used to be a dissenting faction within, and sometimes outside, the Republican Party. As the GOP has grown more conservative, it has simultaneously grown more anti-intellectual. It has been a jagged downward path from Reagan to Trump. . . .

The vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin represents an important marker in the evolution of the Republican Party. A candidate who plainly lacked familiarity with national-level public policy was nonetheless not only defended by conservatives, but embraced with a fervor that exceeded the grudging enthusiasm of the candidate who selected her. That liberals abhorred her as a rube merely served to confirm her authentic membership in the conservative tribe. “This is not the first time that I’ve seen a governor being questioned by some, quote, ‘expert,’” insisted John McCain in her defense. “I remember that Ronald Reagan was a cowboy.”

Donald Trump was able to vanquish his rivals and capture the Republican nomination for many reasons, but one of them was his ability to win a race to the mental bottom. He dominated the many televised debates with crude bullying. No candidate before Trump had made such a mockery of the very idea of having facts to support his position; he would simply dismiss his adversaries as short, ugly, nerdy, or female. His inability to grasp complexity has forced Trump to fixate relentlessly on a simple themes, like the wall and the lack of gratitude displayed by minorities, that resonate with his supporters. Trump is the apotheosis of the anti-intellectual style, the perfect spokesman for the conservative agenda.

Rhetorically speaking, the ne plus ultra of this particular ideological commitment remains Peggy Noonan’s orgasmic encomium to George W. Bush’s unwillingness or inability to engage in any form of higher cognitive function whatsoever:

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He’s normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He’s not exotic. But if there’s a fire on the block, he’ll run out and help. He’ll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, “Where’s Sally?” He’s responsible. He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, “I warned Joe about that furnace.” And, “Does Joe have children?” And “I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it’s formidable and yet fleeting.” When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain’t that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain’t that guy. Americans love the guy who ain’t that guy.

John Roberts’s (and Neil Gorsuch’s and Brett Kavanaugh’s) jibes at the intellectual pretensions of people who think they know more about a subject than the common clay of the West, just because they’ve spent their lives studying that subject, are very much of a piece with all this. All three of these men are fundamentally committed to the proposition that expert opinion should not get in the way of businessmen who want to make money, or Republicans who want to win elections.

And of course conservative contempt for bureaucratic expertise in particular and the exercise of critical intelligence in general is hardly an optional feature for a political movement led by authoritarians who refuse to acknowledge the validity of climate science, basic geology and biology, and so forth.

All of which is to say that the takeover of the Republican party by someone like Donald Trump will remain a completely unsolvable mystery, like the square root of a million.

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