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One of the reasons that Barack Obama was elected was that many people thought he was extremely intelligent. And they assumed that meant he would also be competent.
Unfortunately, these two qualities – while not necessarily mutually exclusive – are not necessarily synonymous, either. In fact, we have found ourselves stuck with an highly intelligent president running perhaps the most incompetent Democratic administration of living memory.
But this is far from a problem exclusive to Obama. For the past few decades, Washington has increasingly become a haven for smart people doing stupid things. And because the capital’s media has joined the fun, this is not readily apparent to the public. A linqua unfranka has developed to cover up what’s really happening.
Thus you will not hear about it in the media or read about it in books. Nonetheless, the overwhelming proportion of damage done to our republic in recent decades has been the work of a dead center extremely proud of its intelligence. We rightfully rail against Palin, Beck and Boenner, but easily forget that, for all their faults, they are but vultures picking at the remains of casualties largely caused by an establishment that smugly prides itself on its intellect, judgment and moderation.
Whether it’s fifty years of failed wars, a disastrous reliance on the myths of the market economy, the costly and damaging drug war, or the loss of constitutional rights and civil liberties, one would be hard pressed to find more than the occasional instance when the likes the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Washington Post were significantly on the right side of a matter of real importance to Americans.
It is fair to say, in fact, that never in our national history has so much well educated intelligence gone to such waste and done so much damage. Factors include the enormous rise of the lawyer class in the capital, an obsession with preventing or finding error rather than with taking action, a fundamentalist faith in various economic and political theories, an inability to look at matters inductively, a culture that acts as though it is always on TV, the blackmail of politicians through campaign contributions, the repeated replacement of facts with spin, compromise without a prior course from which to judge sensibly the compromise, too many managers and not enough doers, a media embedded in the power structure it is supposed to keep track of, the collapse of liberalism and the Democratic Party, and the scarcity of social intelligence.
Intelligent people in Washington who have not betrayed, suppressed or ignored their intelligence are typically ignored, dismissed or ridiculed. To be inquisitive, skeptical, reflective and wise is more likely to place one in a Homeland Security file than in a place of honor.
Which is why smart people in Washington do stupid things. And why it’s up to the rest of the country to straighten them out.
SAM SMITH is the editor of the Progressive Review. He lives in Maine.