Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Stupid Party

I heard a joke during the 2000 presidential election that went something like this: George W. Bush speaks to the American people as though English were his second language, while Al Gore speaks to the American people as though English were their second language.

Gore, unfortunately, was typical of many liberal politicians of his generation, such as John Kerry, in seeming to talk down to the public. During the 1960s, liberalism became severed from its working-class roots, in large part over Vietnam but also because of school busing, welfare and a host of other domestic policies. Liberals fell victim to the caricature of the pointy-headed intellectual, over-educated and severed from the concerns of regular or "real" Americans.

Modern conservativism, which could lay claim to a rich intellectual heritage, took on a populist strain that was adopted by the Republican Party. The GOP, once considered the party of a wealthy elite, claimed to understand the concerns of middle America, while liberals, Republicans said, were the true elitists, who thought they knew what was best for Americans but who treated American values with contempt. Over time, and with the rise of the religious right, this populism has degenerated into full-blown anti-intellectualism, with contempt not only for intellectuals but for the very idea of expertise and intellectual inquiry.

Well, my friends, it seems the conservative chickens have finally come home to roost. The tensions between the populist strain of conservatism and the intellectual strain seem poised to explode over George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Consider the words of the right's own Ava Braun, aka Ann Coulter, who bemoans Miers' lack of qualifications to the bench:

Harriet Miers went to Southern Methodist University Law School, which is not ranked at all by the serious law school reports and ranked No. 52 by US News and World Report. Her greatest legal accomplishment is being the first woman commissioner of the Texas Lottery.

I know conservatives have been trained to hate people who went to elite universities, and generally that's a good rule of thumb. But not when it comes to the Supreme Court.

I see. So qualifications and learning don't matter, except when it comes to the Supreme Court, which, unlike much of the rest of the government, conservatives don't want to demolish but rather control for a generation and beyond. Suddenly, it matters where someone went to law school. (As someone who went to Westminster College, I'm put off by Coulter's snobbery. Smart and ambitious people--not that I'm either one, necessarily--attend all kinds of schools.)

And why does it matter where Miers went to school? It seems to me that to do what conservatives are hoping Bush's judges do, all you need is a subscription to the Heritage Foundation's newsletter and a copy of Rick Santorum's book. Coulter--who I normally do not take seriously enough to acknowledge, but I needed to blog about something--argues that because conservatives want justices who are only going to interpret the law, not make law, they need people with the intellectual firepower to master its minutiae.

Of course, we all know this is not what conservatives really want. What they want are justices who are going to turn back the clock on 40 years' worth of Supreme Court decisions on abortion, the right to privacy, and separation of church and state, among others. This has nothing to do with interpreting the Constitution versus "legislating from the bench" but simply a matter of preferring one interpretation over the other. It has everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with qualifications.

Not every conservative is anti-intellectual, of course, and pundits like George Will are rightly dismayed over Miers' lack of qualifications. (Though he seems to care more about how she spent her career as an attorney, rather than her diploma.) Others are disturbed that the president wants to give a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court to his personal attorney. But no one should be surprised that the president, having listened to his party denigrate intellectualism for decades, has decided to take them at their word.


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