Dumbing-down our political leaders

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
January 19, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

Years ago I hired a tradie to tinker with my treadmill. When I handed him my credit card to pay, reading my name aloud, he asked, “What kind of doctor are you?”

Not the kind that could help him if he collapsed on my machine. Boom boom. He laughed and volunteered his own barb: that he wasn’t a gynaecologist but that he’d be happy to “have a poke around.”

Involuntary Kegel exercises aside, it seems quite obvious that should a woman be seeking a gynaecologist, she’ll want one who actually knows what they’re doing. As opposed to some random creep offering to have a stab. Those with cars will want a mechanic with a clue on how to fix the leak/crack/clunk and we all want chefs who know how to distinguish between mushrooms.

So why is it so preposterous that we want a leader smart enough to tackle the enormously complicated job of running government? Why is a politician who is smarter than us, smarter than those around us, such a repellent idea?

This week a knowledge of languages other than English has been bandied about as grounds for scrutiny. As a character failing. As something almost perverse. Republican presidential nominee-wannabee Mitt Romney has been criticised for knowing French and his not-so comrade Jon Huntsman viewed as suspicious for speaking Mandarin.

Apparently knowing how to speak anything other than American Standard is a character indictment up there in the supporter-slaying stakes as extra-marital affairs and sodomy. As spurious as having a foreign sounding name. As untrustworthy as skin any hue darker than white.

Sidelining the obvious racism, classism and idiotic parochialism of the debate, my interest is the anti-intellectualism it showcases. How, once again, spotlighted is the appeal of the Homer Simpson-everyman and widespread contempt for intellect.

It should, of course, go without saying that simply having knowledge of a second language does not a Mensa candidate make. Similarly, by no means am I suggesting that Romney or Hunstman are masterminds. But critiquing a person simply on the basis of intellectual capacity is depressing, embarrassing and reflective of the hideous dumbing-down of political debate.

If anyone actually knew the secret behind what that messy and malleable category known as “the electorate” wanted in a leader, the keys to the city and the ability to print money would be there for the taking.

Alas, voters are fickle and their wants are manipulated by the most capricious of factors. Expectations change on a dime. But the idea that voters are turned-off by overt intelligence is both a reality and thoroughly alarming.

How on earth can having a leader who is smarter than us be a bad thing?

Like most political aspirants, the current crop of Republicans are positioning themselves as everymen. As nice guys, as avuncular, as blokes who claim to know – at least in theory – what life is like living paycheque to paycheque.

Most Americans would be smart enough to see through the ruse, but nonetheless apparently appreciate the artifice of just-passable cognitive functioning. Appreciate it, even yearn for it. As opposed to any fancy-pants smarts. Which would just be such a turn-off.

We’ve seen the same thing play out in Australia with Rudd frequently criticised as too intellectual and of course, the same idea simply has to explain George W’s ascent to the big house.

I want policy acumen and political comprehension. I want someone smarter than me, smarter than you, someone who is more clever than they are cute, more smart than slick. I don’t care who they’ve slept with or who designed their suit. I want them brainy enough to handle the problems of governing. The rest is just cream.

© Lauren Rosewarne