The Smarty-Pants Problem

Chris Mooney -- Prospect alum, science journalist, known smart person -- is unsettled when liberals say conservatives are dumb:

Over the weekend, Maureen Dowd penned the column that somebody—some liberal—was bound to pen eventually. Basically, it was about, uh, why conservatives have embraced being "stupid," or at least anti-intellectual.

Reading this, I winced, both because I knew my fellow liberals would eat it up, but also because I have learned, from studying the psychology and science of our politics, how misguided and self-defeating it is to take this approach to the political right...

For while there are indeed more "eggheads" on the left today (more advanced degrees among liberals, see here), the word itself implies much more than merely being smart. It connotes being prone to abstraction, getting lost in thought, the perfect image of the absent-minded professor. And it is that—rather than intelligence—that conservatives (who are often very smart themselves) have little patience for.

True enough. This presents a problem, though. Just how should one go about arguing against the rejection of rationality and the outright anti-intellectualism that often characterizes conservative politics? When one party thinks evolution is a wacky theory, and hundreds of climate scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to deceive the world so they can get rich off government research grants -- and more importantly, encourages and exploits resentment and people who are well-educated as part of its political program -- just how are liberals supposed to respond?

It isn't easy to answer that question, although I would argue that Republicans have not rejected science, as is often charged. Listen to the way they talk about climate change. They actually speak as though they accept the validity of the scientific method and scientific conclusions. They just lie about what those conclusions are in this particular case, alleging falsely that 1) there's a lot of disagreement among climate scientists, when in fact there isn't; and 2) the scientists whose findings they don't like are engaged in fraud, which would be a subversion of science were it true.

On the larger question of smarts, conservatives are divided. On one hand, as Chris says, they place a higher value on qualities like decisiveness in leaders than liberals do. On the other hand, they'll be happy to tell you that they love Paul Ryan because he's such a genius. But I don't think we should go too far with the idea that Americans never elected anyone because he was smarter than his opponent. George W. Bush certainly lost votes because he was perceived as dim, and the same may happen to Rick Perry. But as the old story about Adlai Stevenson goes, a woman came up to him and told him he had the votes of every thinking American. That's all well and good, he replied, but I need a majority.