Assumptions

ASSUMPTIONS…. When I was a teenager, I had certain misconceptions about politics and government. I assumed, for example, that members of Congress, whether I agreed with their policies or not, were necessarily very bright. After all, these folks are educated and well read. They attend policy briefings, hear expert testimony at committee hearings, and have staffers who help keep them informed on everything from the economy to foreign policy to constitutional law. It’s not like voters would just send some misguided schmuck to serve as their voice in one of the most prestigious legislative bodies on the planet.

Needless to say, I didn’t fully appreciate, at the time, how this process works.

I thought about this when I saw Matt Yglesias’ item from yesterday, reflecting on Rep Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) twittering about how much he’s enjoying “Atlas Shrugged.” Matt commented:

Something I think most liberals don’t understand is exactly how stupid many conservative leaders are. There is, yes, a condescending tendency to believe that no smart person could be on the right ideologically at all. That’s dead wrong. There are plenty of bright people on the right. But the way their movement works, intelligence or understanding of politics and policy has no meaningful role in advancement. If anything, there’s something of a negative correlation between knowing what you’re talking about and being able to get ahead in right-wing politics.

So you get stuff like this. He’s not cocooning by reading Milton Friedman, he’s cocooning by reading Ayn Rand. It’s nuts, but it’s the way things work.

I’d go a little further. Most of the media and the public underestimate the scope of the foolishness, too.

If a member of Congress — not just some back-bencher, but a senator or a member of the House leadership — says something seemingly provocative, a lot of people are predisposed to take it seriously. After all, he/she is in a position of authority. He/she helps shape the policies of the federal government. His/her opinion must have some value; I’m seeing it on television.

The underlying assumption is the same one I had in high school.

We talked earlier, for example, about House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) responding to an economic collapse by calling for a spending freeze. News outlets reported this straight — as if it were a serious recommendation from a credible public figure. Some Americans probably heard the news and thought there might be something to it. After all, Boehner’s the House Minority Leader. GOP lawmakers got together and picked him as their #1 guy. If Republicans re-claimed the majority, Boehner would be the Speaker of the House, and two heartbeats from the presidency.

Respectable figures are reluctant to say, out loud, “My God, what this man is saying is blisteringly stupid.” Indeed, leading Republican officials — Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, Mike Pence — say all kinds of things that should be dismissed as transparent nonsense, but aren’t. There must be something coherent about their ideas, the conventional thinking goes, by virtue of their offices. Their recommendations warrant responses — and even deserve consideration at the negotiating table — because they maintain positions of influence in government.

“Something I think most liberals don’t understand is exactly how stupid many conservative leaders are.” If only liberals weren’t the only ones.