Monday, December 27, 2010

The Politics of Intelligence

That Juan Williams hit an ideological nerve yesterday comparing Barack Obama's and Sarah Palin's intelligence says something important about the state of play in today’s culture war (my emphasis):
“Fox News contributor Juan Williams said Sunday that Sarah Palin ‘can't stand on the intellectual stage’ with President Obama.

“Williams, in his role as an analyst on Fox News Sunday, was breaking down the Republican presidential field, which he saw as weak.

"'There's nobody out there, except for Sarah Palin, who can absolutely dominate the stage, and she can't stand on the intellectual stage with Obama,’ Williams said.”
Liberals think this comparative assessment of Obama’s and Palin’s intelligence goes without saying. But they enjoy hearing it said anyway, especially by a Fox News contributor. Naturally, Williams’s words vexed a lot of conservatives and all Palinites. For one thing, they think that Obama’s ineptitude in office belies all the media hype about his intelligence. For another, they think that only a liberal could summon up the arrogance and obnoxiousness it takes to belittle Palin’s intelligence.

Obama strikes me as an awfully intelligent guy and I have a hard time imagining Palin as President. But I can see that conservatives have a point. In the space of six years, defying conventional wisdom every step of the way, Palin has managed to get herself elected mayor of Wasilla and then Governor of Alaska, secure the vice-presidential nomination of a major political party, held her own in a vice-presidential debate, write a best-selling book and establish herself as a force in national politics. Does that sound like an “unintelligent” woman to you? The only politician I can think of who has a comparable record of propelling himself from obscurity to national prominence is Barack Obama.

“Intelligence” is a slippery thing. Being intelligent in the politically relevant sense is a matter of having the disposition to come up with intellectually defensible responses to public problems as they arise. It’s not the same thing as “wisdom,” which is a matter of having the disposition to reach the correct conclusions. So it should be possible, in principle anyway, for liberals and conservatives who can’t agree on what counts as the right response to public problems to agree on which people respond to them intelligently. But you can’t draw firm conclusions about a public figure’s intelligence without seeing how he or she responds to a wide sample of political challenges. So judgments about politically relevant intelligence are best made not in the heat of a political moment, but in hindsight after partisan passions have cooled.

That means that the jury's still out on Obama’s and Palin’s political intelligence. So what are liberals and conservatives disagreeing so emphatically about now? Whitney Pitcher’s response to Williams’s disparagement of Palin over at Conservatives4Palin gets right to the heart of the matter:
“After all, according to Williams, Governor Palin is nothing but a centerfold for conservative men, right? What should we expect? How in the world could a state college educated female and former journalist carry a candle to an Ivy League educated male president?”
Because real intelligence is an elusive virtue in a politician, we rely on cultural systems of accreditation to spot it. Obama’s resume is brimming with items that liberals use as proxies for intelligence: an Ivy League B.A., President of the Harvard Law Review, a professorial manner, etc. They knew everything they needed to know about Palin’s intelligence when they heard her drop a few G’s and discovered that she got her B.A. by attending four undistinguished undergraduate institutions and likes to shoot wild animals in her spare time.

Conservatives consult a different set of credentials to assess a politician’s intelligence. Most of them were satisfied that George Bush had the practical intelligence to be president not because he’d attended Yale and Harvard Business School, but because he’d negotiated his way successfully through the business world and Texas state politics. They found his conduct as president wanting in any number respects, but were always reassured by Bush's studious indifference to the harsh judgments he was getting from liberal elites. 

By the same token, conservatives have always had their doubts about Obama because he had the audacity to run for the presidency before he’d distinguished himself anywhere outside of the liberal academy.  They're sick and tired of hearing liberals celebrate Obama’s intelligence and temperament because they rebel against the presumption that the cultural credentials liberals congratulate themselves for having are the only ones that matter. Palin’s place on the national stage is an expression of that rebellion.


Anonymous said...

Judgment matters a lot more intelligence in a president. I think both Obama and Palin are plenty intelligent, but both are lacking in judgment.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that people attack the intelligence level of those they oppose. Maybe it looks good in print and in soundbites, but it's a dangerous path. Underestimating the intelligence of one's opponents is always a mistake. I think every night during George Bush's presidency, David Letterman had a "great moments" segment that made Bush look ridiculous. (They were funny) But that's what comedians should be doing. And I guess that's why Juan Williams's comments got so much attention.