Monday, October 6, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism in American Politics

Sarah Palin represents but the latest manifestation of the long history of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Why is it that Americans are distrustful of candidates with strong academic credentials, and who have a deep understanding of political or philosophical issues? In Europe for the most part successful, serious candidates for high office are expected to be knowledgeable and well-spoken. But in the US, a significant portion of the electorate would just as soon that their candidates display no more than a high school understanding of the issues.

Repeatedly during the vice-presidential debate, Palin demonstrated that she has no idea what she is talking about. She completely ducked a question about bankruptcy law, seeming to indicate that she has little knowledge of the changes recently enacted by Congress. (Her ignorance caused her to miss an opportunity to attack Biden for supporting legislation that was deeply desired by his constituents in the credit card industry centered in Delaware.) Palin kept talking about rooting out corruption and fraud on Wall Street, but gave not a hint of how she thought the government should do that. She seemed not to understand the constitutional position of the vice-president, or to have given much thought to whether Dick Cheney has abused the office, or whether she would govern in the same secretive manner he has. And beyond talking about how much she loves Israel, she has shown no comprehension of the complicated issues that have blocked peace in the Middle East for decades, or no idea of how she would advance the process.

McCain-Palin supporters complain that the media has been too harsh in attacking Palin's frequent inability to answer questions. I think they have been much too kind. It should be the media's job to encourage the public to respect candidates who have given some serious thought to serious issues. Instead, the media encourages the same kind of superficial thinking that has made Sarah Palin a star. The only encouraging news is that while many of the TV talking heads wanted to score the debate a tie, most of the public seemed to think that Biden won decisively. Could it be that most of the electorate this year may be grown-up enough to see through the simplistic answers of a C student of politics, and may instead be looking for something more substantive?

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