28 June, 2008

The American Electorate: "I'm Voting for Stupid"

American anti-intellectualism could end up destroying this country within the next decade.

Our decades-long assault on intellect is turning us into a backwater. Just consider these results from a Programme for International Student Assessment study: the United States ranked nearly dead last in math, smack in the middle of the below average column. Search for our educational rankings, and you'll find article after article talking about our failing grades. We're becoming a nation of idiots.

Something tells me the neocons are rather counting on that.

Consider this series of columns by John Dean, former Nixon lawyer turned enthusiastic Republican basher. Dean first analyzes Obama's speech on race and comes to some depressing conclusions, revealed right there in the title: "Barack Obama's Smart Speech "A More Perfect Union": Did It Reveal Him To Be Too Intellectual To Be President?"

Computers have made it rather simple to determine the intelligence or grade level of a speech by measuring it with the Flesch-Kincaid test, which is found on the Tools/Options menu of Microsoft Word. This widely-employed measurement device determines the degree of difficulty of the written (and spoken) word.

Enterprising linguists and others have applied the test to a wide variety of material. For instance, the folks at youDictionary have tested the inaugural addresses of presidents. They discovered that no president since Woodrow Wilson has come close to delivering speeches pitched at a 12th grade level. Bush II's first inaugural address was at a 7.5 grade level, which ranked him near Eisenhower's second address (7.5), Nixon's first (7.6), LBJ's only (7.0), and FDR's fourth (8.1). Clinton's two addresses, by contrast, scored at the 9th grade level (9.4 and 8.8 respectively).

I tested Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech and it scores at a 10.5 grade level, which by current standards is in the stratosphere. But maybe he was being too smart to win the presidency.

This, Dean says, is because "Republicans have spent the past half century dumbing-down the American presidency, for it has helped them win the White House ." Apparently, Republicans think it's a fantastic idea to have only the finest dumbasses in charge of the nuclear weapons.

Obama's ranking on this scale was one of the things that convinced me to vote for him. I'm sick to death of people talking to Americans like they're nothing but a bunch of rubes and utter morons. All evidence to the contrary, it would be nice to have a president who believes we can think our way out of a brown paper bag. One of the secrets of creating smart people is to actually expect people to be smart.

Intelligence, however, is anathema to the neocons, because five minutes' critical thought can blow enormous holes in their "reasoning." I point you to eight years of miserably failed Bush policies and the overwhelming evidence that McCain's policies are merely more of the same. Magical thinking abounds in Republican circles. We can still win in Iraq if we stay there 100 years. The tax fairy will pay for all the tax cuts and dramatically increased spending. Drilling for more oil in our pristine national wild areas will lower the price of gas practically instantly. I could go on, but you've got the picture: pick at the shiny gold coating Republican policies, and what you find underneath is bullshit.

But this is fine with them. Republicans still have a chance at winning, because Obama's smart and the electorate wants dumb. Consider Dean's further evidence on this point:

In recent years, Democrats have nominated presidential candidates who are far more intelligent that their Republican counterparts. Common sense might suggest that high intelligence is necessary to be president,
and conclude that we should applaud such nominations. Election politics, unfortunately, usually punishes the more intelligent nominee.

He points out that the only Democrats to win in the last several decades have been Jimmy Carter (who was super-smart but whose Southern drawl makes him sound like a goober) and Bill Clinton (who played down his smarts, also spoke with a twang, and chased skirts for good measure). When it comes to electing a president, Americans seem to have an irresistible impulse to pull the level for the dumbest-seeming bastard they can find.

If this is truly what elections come down to in this country, Obama has absolutely no chance at the White House. He's not only smart, he doesn't hide it. And, horror of horrors, he expects Americans to be smart, too.

I'm afraid this may be too much for a nation of terminal under-achievers to handle.

So is Dean. And he's got studies to back his pessimism:

Dr. Drew Westen, a clinical and political psychologist who teaches at Emery University, has literally looked inside the mind of partisan voters with MRI scanning equipment, and confirmed that emotions dominate our voting decisions. Westen writes about our emotionally-driven democracy in his recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions In Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs, 2007), and his findings are not good news for Democrats, unless they change their ways.

Westen and his colleagues found “[t]he political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a
reasoned decision.” Democrats, however, like to appeal to reason. While this resonates with many key elements of the Democratic Party, it simply does not work across the board with all voters.

In short, voters are going to react to McCain and Obama in the general election this fall with their hearts, not their heads.

If that's the case, we are so fucked.

This country can't afford another four years of stupid. Dean has some faint hope that the last eight years of utterly spectacular dumbfuckery has jolted the American electorate enough to realize that voting for the person who seems closest to you in general ignorance is the wrong thing to do. So do I. And yet both of us realize that many of our fellow countrymen are going to go for the man who throws a good barbecue rather than the man who has the intelligence to make the tough decisions and start picking up the shattered fragments of our nation. So what if McCain wants to keep us in a hideously unpopular war for a century, can't tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite even if they're wearing badges, and whose economic policy is guaranteed to bankrupt the nation? He doesn't talk above the understanding of the average dropout, and his dry rub is to die for.

We just might.

America has to wise up. Somehow, we have to convince our fellow citizens to stop treating elections as popularity contests and start treating them as job interviews. The presidency is the most important job in America: it's vital it doesn't go to the dumbest candidate. We need a super-intelligent person in the White House, someone capable of running a complicated, dangerous, and threatened country. We need someone in charge who can think his way out of a brown paper bag.

The problem is, even if we end up with such a man, I'm afraid the below-average idiots who treat elections as an extension of American Idol are going to end up forcing him to tack stupid. We're beyond a left-leaning politician having to tack right: if what John Dean and his sources are saying is correct, America will accept a left-leaner as long as he's stupid enough not to threaten their fragile egos. They'll forgive any number of idiotic mistakes - they've proven that time and time again over the last eight years - but they'll never forgive a man for being smarter than they are.

That's why we need to work hard to create a smarter America, my darlings. Intelligence needs to be prized again. Americans need to be encouraged to excel in academics, value smarts over personality, and above all learn how the fucking well think again.

This country is not going to survive as a superpower, or even a power, if it doesn't get smart. If Bush's idiotic antics have made our electorate realize that, then it'll be the only good thing he's ever done.

Let's don't vote for stupid this time, okay, America?


Anonymous said...

There is hope for you yet, We just kicked a particularly repugnant bunch of backwards thinkers. Our former Prime Minister was a G.W. Bush apologist and thought that time stopped still at 1950. His arrogance was only matched by his ignorance and the only reason he got back into office during the previous election was that the Leader of the opposition hadnt had an original idea in decades and was just parroting the policies of the current government and when push came to shove it was a case of "who do we vote for, the long time conservative or the copy cat, well I suppose the long time conservative has had more practice so lets vote for him"
The last election saw the opposition put up an original thinker who is also pretty smart by politician standards (lets face it, Politicians don't really need to be smart, just "shit house Rat" cunning) Not only did he win the election by a landslide, the the, current Prime Minister also lost his electorate, only the second Prime Minister in our history to have that ignominious honour :-)
So you see, if the current administration is on the nose enough, and the alternative is a true alternative, regardless of their intellectual standards they stand a pretty good chance of winning, and from what I have seen of Georgie Boi's current rep, you could put an aging, tired old draught horse in the opposition seat (Oh thats right, she lost the Democrat nomination already)and they would win.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, except that's exactly what we said in 2004.

Still, anything that helps keep an optimistic attitude is good. You can't read too much of this sort of thing at once or it'll make you cry.

Efrique said...

I recently read a book reporting on cross country differences in learning of mathematics. It was a report published in Australia, looking at Australia, USA, Japan and Sweden, but mostly comparing the first two.

It looked at learning of a whole slew of areas of mathematics with standard tests for ages 6,8,10,12 and 14, and looked at the distribution of results for each mathematical area, and how they develop with age.

At age 6 there's little difference between Australia and the USA on most categories. By age 10 there's typically about a two-year gap (that is, the USA students were where the Australian students were at age 8, roughly, though it was up and down a bit). By age 14 there was a further two year gap - the distribution of US students is about where the Australian students were at around age 10. For some reason they're starting in the same place but learning at half the rate!

Astonished at the scale of the difference, I asked some US friends about it (online) - one said "yes, it's sad, but true, they spend a lot of time relearning the same material over and over". Another said "That's why we decided to homeschool."

It's a bit hard to remain a front-line-technical country with those sort of disadvantages. Importing talent certainly helps for a while, but after a couple of generations it won't work.

[I have also long been surprised to find calculus not taught in high school in the US (except in AP classes). In Australia, about half of all students who finish high school do calculus; almost everyone who does any mathematics at university has done calculus in high school.]

I notice that Australia, New Zealand and Canada are in the top group on your link on both Mathematics and Reading. The cultural differences can't be so great between those three and the US that there's some inherent problem with learning mathematics (and IQ is surely no different).

Atheist Chaplain: Bennelong is my electorate. Talk about schadenfreude.

Blake Stacey said...

I don't want to judge without evidence, but in the past, adding politics to brain-scanning has produced nothing better than neurophrenology. My rule of thumb, crafted after painful experience, is that if it's a story in the popular press about the brain, it's probably wrong.

Blake Stacey said...

And it's not as if the Flesch-Kincaid formulas are any kind of gold standard, either. See, e.g., Sirico (2007).

In short, a true Elitist Bastard does not rely upon the Tools menu of Microsoft Word. Garbage in, superficially plausible garbage out.

Cujo359 said...

How about some anecdotal evidence, then? Here's the funny thing about Efrique's comment - I learned calculus in high school. But that was more than thirty years ago. Now my nieces are going to the same high school, and they're a year behind where I and my siblings were at their age. They won't be taught calculus. It's not because they're doing badly - both have regularly been on the honor roll. The high school just isn't teaching it any more.

If anything, they should have been a year ahead of where I was, given how much more complicated and competitive the world has become.

I hear tales like this from all over the country. American education is getting worse, and it wasn't as good as it could have been back when I was in the system.

Cujo359 said...

I'll give you this, though, Blake Stacey. You're right to be skeptical of the F-K scale or any similar one. It's best used as a measure of writing clarity. I have occasionally written repair manuals and other technical texts, and I try to aim for eighth grade level writing. As you can see from my writing here, it's usually a struggle.

My basic point is that you can write just about anything technical at a level that a high school student could understand according to F-K. That doesn't mean a high school student can actually understand it. There's more to the complexity of a thought than the words, or the sentence structure, used to express it.

In that regard, I'm with Shakespeare - "Brevity is the soul of wit."

Efrique said...

Hmm, my reference to the proportions doing calculus should have been to my state (NSW), not the country. I haven't checked those figures (but I expect they're not too different).

Concerned about whether rumours here about falling standards were true, I recently checked out what the examination for mathematics were like compared to when I had done them (a little under 30 years ago). There was much more statistics and probability (a move I strongly support), and the corresponding loss of a few topics.

The overall level was down a little, but it surprised me how little - it wasn't a shocking drop at all; in fact given that the pool of students was larger (more of the "lower tail" finishing high school), it surprised me it had diluted so little.

I think there's a lot to be improved, though. Why aren't we all doing as well as say, Finland?

Anonymous said...

Efrique :-)
We all have our guilty little pleasures and living in Sunny Bennelong would take some of the sting away I imagine ;-) I was once a card carying member of the National Party though even then I didnt agree 100% with all their policies, but as they were supposed to be the voice of country people I thought they would make a difference, I was wrong and when they finally rolled over to get a scratch on their belly by their masters in the Liberal Party, and consequently dropped the ball on the Sale of Telstra, I lost all interest in them, I now consider myself an independent and vote for whomever I think will do the best job for the Country as a whole rather than feather their own nest.

Anonymous said...

Read to a kid you know today, it will be the best investment you make all week.

(OK, yes, my mom was a librarian, but she didn't tell me to say that.)

Dana Hunter said...

@ Atheist Chaplain: I'd have a lot more hope from your anecdote if America wasn't so far behind her Southern Hemisphere cousins in education, decency, and overall ability to think. ;-) But you have given me more hope, and for that (among many other things) thankee kindly!

@Brian: some girls cry. This one just takes down the Smack-o-Matic and looks for a bare bottom. Not like there's been any difficulty finding those lately...

@Efrique: Lovely. Nice to see how many years we're actually behind. I shall someday use this to good advantage, in conjunction with the Smack-o-Matic.

@Blake: Excellent points, o' course, but there's the evidence of the outraged media to consider. They always get their panties in a wad when someone's too smart for them. The way they obsess over bowling scores and diner orders tells me they feel like mental midgets when Barack's around. Which of course is because they are. ;-)

@Cujo359: What scares me is that it's worse than it was when I was in school, too - and that was only fifteen years ago. Reports from my younger friends indicate they got a better education than many of the students currently undergoing torture - I mean, high school. So we're on a steady down-hill slide, when we should be ramping up. Americans don't seem to think that you fall from superpower status once you've achieved it, but that kind of thinking holds no water in the face of the evidence.

As to Shakespeare... I still say he should've changed that line to "Depravity is the soul of wit." Heh. But then again, that was back before the IDiots got truly depraved... they've taken all the fun out of dyfunctional. :-(

@Melior: Wish I knew some kids. Wish I knew some nocturnal kids - every time I think of volunteering at one of those reading programs, they say evil things like "Be here at 8 in the morning." This does not work for a woman whose bedtime is 6am.

I wish our society wasn't so bent over kids associating with adults, because you know what I'd do if I wouldn't get branded a pervert? I'd hold reading slumber parties. Little groups of curious minds who don't get read to sleep at home could have a night or two a month where someone reads them a bedtime story. Which would work great until the little buggers woke up at 7am... crap in a hat.

However, if I get super rich and famous, I think I've just discovered a little something to do with the cash... reading camps.

Thank you all for the comments, inspiration, and insight!

Anonymous said...

Dana, Have you given this place a look over, (http://www.bookcrossing.com/)I joined a while ago and have released a few books back into the wild. It is gratifying when one of the books you released has been found and re-entered into the database, some books have made it quite a way from home.

Efrique said...

Dana - I will try to find the book details.

I know the library it was in, but it won't be where I found it, since that was in the "New Book" display a good 4 or 5 months ago, and I recall neither authors nor title...