The Public Eye: The Dumbing of America

By Bob Burnett
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:25:00 AM

In 1994, when Forrest Gump famously observed, “stupid is as stupid does,” no one expected that Forrest would become the poster boy of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, as an integral component of its “just say no” strategy, the GOP is steadily dumbing down the level of American political discourse. Meanwhile, the US is faced with numerous challenges that require our citizens to use their brains. 

The 2009 Republican Party doesn’t have ideas and doesn’t appear to believe they need them. Rather than proposing an alternative to Obama’s push for healthcare reform, they have made outrageous claims about the program—it will lead to euthanasia and support abortion on demand—and suggested that it’s part of an organized push towards “socialism.”  

Similarly, the Republicans didn’t propose an alternative to Obama’s (successful) stimulus package but instead deplored “government bailouts.” The stimulus package passed the House without a single Republican vote, causing the normally conservative Financial Times to observe, “The more necessary public spending seems to be, the more strenuously Republicans oppose it. The party’s political tactics are as hare-brained as its economics.” 

Traditionally, Republicans have played to dumb; now they’re encouraging it. 58 percent of Republicans either think Obama wasn’t born in the United States or aren’t sure. Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin have become the poster girls of the GOP. Fox News dominates TV news ratings and Rush Limbaugh rules the radio airwaves. 

During the campaign, Barack Obama observed, “it’s like these guys [Republicans] take pride in being ignorant.” (Obama was responding to the GOP mocking his suggestion that Americans could increase their automobile miles per gallon by maintaining their tires at the correct pressure.)  

Obama’s assumption was that Republicans were the victims of a pernicious group mind; each day the GOP spin doctors broadcasted a new theme and the Republican faithful dutifully parroted the Party line, no matter how inane. Candidates McCain and Palin played their part knowing their outrageous scripts rallied the Republican faithful. Eventually Palin suggested that Obama associated with terrorists, which generated images of the Democratic candidate as a jihadist and, as a result, a flurry of death threats ensued. 

Over the course of the Presidential contest, the Republican credo degenerated to “whatever works.” And, the GOP leaders discovered that stupid works as effectively as fear—in fact, they complement each other. 

Deliberately dumbing down the message works well with the Republican base because, compared to average Americans, the GOP rank-and-file tend to be poorly educated and dogmatically Christian, living in a culture that is hierarchical and rules based. They seldom read books or newspapers—although many read the Bible—and get their news from conservative talks shows or Fox News. Republican voters don’t lack intelligence but, rather, they don’t have a tradition of thinking for themselves. Although they come from a culture that has been dumbed down, they don’t recognize it because everyone around them acts the same way, shares the same worldview, and believes the same proverbs: “George Bush was a good President because he kept us safe.” Stupid is as stupid does. 

After all, it’s only a small step from believing that God created the world in seven days to accepting the assertion that healthcare reform will lead to socialism. If a true believer has faith that the Bible is literally true then they can also trust Rush Limbaugh. If they believe the Rapture is imminent then they can ignore warnings about global climate change or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If a trusted leader tells them that Obama is the Antichrist then they can comfortably oppose everything the President proposes, and even go so far as to threaten his life. 

U.S. history informs us that there has always been a strong anti-intellectual component in American culture. And it’s common for radical conservative movements to get their strongest support from the white, rural, Christian south. What’s unusual about the GOP “dumbing of America” campaign is that it has become a national strategy, 

There are two serious problems with the Republican game plan of celebrating stupidity. It is anti-American because it defiles our treasured myth of the triumphant individual. “Dumb is beautiful” runs counter to the American ethos of self-sufficiency, of taking pride in a culture of individuals who stand on their own two feet and think for themselves. Ultimately, it replaces the individual with the mob. 

The other problem with the Republican strategy is that it is counterproductive. America is beset by terrible problems: a staggering economy, a war against terrorists, the threat of global climate change and diminishing energy supplies, to name only a few. To survive in an increasingly difficult world, the United States must tap the intelligence of all of our citizens. We need to challenge ourselves to function at a higher level and not be satisfied with sappy slogans and emotional formulas. This is the time for Americans to question authority, not pay obeisance to it. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at