The Republicans' Bizarre Attacks on Elites

Is a Ph.D. a prerequisite to elective office? No. But smarts and an inquisitive intellect should be.

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There is an old, possibly apocryphal, campaign story involving Adlai Stevenson. During one of his presidential bids in the 1950s, a female supporter gushed that he had the support of "every thinking American." Stevenson's deadpan reply: "Thank you, ma'am, but I need a majority."

Stevenson, a professorial Illinois liberal who too often seemed detached from the hurly-burly of politics, knew a bit about Americans and their views on thinking. He was damned on the right as an "egghead," too smart for his own political good. (He was also a friend of my father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who worked for him.)

Fast forward half a century. Another professorial Illinois liberal occupies the White House who is often criticized for seeming too cool in the heat of the political moment. But the egghead's ascendancy hasn't quieted the far right's anti-intellectual strain. If anything, it's thriving, recast as festering anger with and a distrust of "elites."

You could see it two weeks ago when House Republicans unveiled their campaign platform, which thundered against "an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites." So as to drive the point home, the assembled officeholders adopted the forced faux-populism of crisply starched dress shirts with collars open—jackets and ties apparently being signs of arrogant elitism. Sure, politicians frequently make campaign appearances in shirt sleeves, hoping the contrived casual look gives them the common touch. But this was the GOP's formal assertion of a readiness to lead. Contrast that scene with the 1994 unveiling of the "Contract With America," when its supporters assembled on the Capitol steps in coats and ties.

And note the phrase "self-appointed elites," as if the Democrats had seized power in some sort of midnight coup. In fact they were hired by the voters to do the job of governing the country. We appointed them, and we may well fire them in a month. The Republicans are now applying for that job, but in their big presentation they dressed casually. A critical part of their pitch is that they're not especially qualified. For what is more elitist than to claim that you more than your peers are qualified to govern?

Some cannot even be bothered to claim that. Take Kelly Ayotte, the GOP's New Hampshire Senate nominee and a former Granite State attorney general. "I do not know better than you," she told a debate audience last month, a line she has used before. "I want the privilege to represent you."

I do not know better than you? Then why are you running for office? That's a reason not to vote for a candidate in and of itself. My congressional representatives had better know better than I do. That's their job—they pay attention to the day-by-day multitudinous matters of state so we don't have to, and that requires expertise and intelligence. Being a legislator requires an ability to carefully consider weighty issues like the New START treaty as well as more esoteric ones like the migrant farmworker policy. That was the lesson of Stephen Colbert's in-character testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee. It was just one aspect of the Congressional workload that most people have little interest of and a sub-Colbert level of knowledge in. And that's to say nothing of the intricacies of the tax code, environmental policies, or foreign affairs. "I've never been abroad, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night" is an amusing ad campaign, but it's not an adequate answer on nuclear arms policy.

So is a Ph.D. in foreign relations a prerequisite to elective office? No. But smarts and an inquisitive intellect should be—not the self-satisfied, know-nothingness exemplified by Sarah Palin and her Delaware mini-me, Christine O'Donnell.

[See a slide show of 10 reasons Palin would make a bad president.]

Florida GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite seemingly since before the movement had a name, last month defended O'Donnell's fitness for office by arguing that "the original design of our republic was for everyday people to serve in government for a period of time … It's not designed to elect a bunch of experts," he said. "To be an expert in the republic is to be someone that knows what life is like in the real world."