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In praise of stupid politicians

Literary intelligence is not everything

Artillery Row

Let me speak in praise of stupid politicians. This is a timeless subject, as relevant now as ever, but the way that people are scorning Liz Truss for her inability to answer a simple question, the way she talks about cheese, for her claim that barking dogs could deter drones and more, makes it especially relevant now.

J.S. Mill said the Tory party was the stupid party

These accusations go beyond snarky Twitter users. Tom Peck in the Independent called one of her policy announcements “breathtakingly stupid”. Anonymous colleagues brief the press that she is a lightweight for using Instagram, an insult Angela Rayner recently used. Ian Collins had a go at her on TalkTV for “stupid” remarks. The Daily Mash did a whole skit about her being “diagnosed as stupid” when she was a teenager. Hugh Laurie called her stupid over a trivial mistake on Twitter. A Labour councillor who knows Truss has defended her, perhaps unhelpfully, as “not thick”. In a New Statesman article arguing that Truss is called silly and unintelligent because of sexism, Alona Ferber says Truss doesn’t come across as “serious” on policy.

Of course, it didn’t help when Truss couldn’t find the exit after a speech recently. But this is an old trope that gets rolled out by journalists all the time. James O’Brien thinks Jacob Rees-Mogg is as “thick as mince”. Earlier this year Tom Peck was saying, “the 2019 Tory intake was aggressively filtered for stupidity.” Polly Toynbee went around a few years ago saying that left wing people were more intelligent. Mary Warnock once said someone intelligent like Virginia Woolf would have made a better prime minister than Margaret Thatcher. And so it goes, and so it goes.

The trope goes back to J.S. Mill, who said the Tory party was the stupid party. He, however, clarified that he meant stupid people were more likely to be Conservative, not that Conservatives were stupid people, and that therefore the Conservative party would be the stupidest. It’s still an unpleasant idea, but somewhat more subtle. As the idea took root and spread, those nuances were rounded off (there’s an irony there).

One splendid example of the crass version of Mill’s idea came in 2004 when members of the faculty at Duke University ran an advert calling on the university to account for the lack of political diversity among staff. The chair of Duke’s philosophy department wrote to The Chronicle to explain:

We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia.

This is an especially powerful idea in America. Right wing politicians are depicted as ill-equipped intellectually for office. Trump, obviously, and perhaps fair enough. George W gave the press nearly a decade of trivial fun. Regan was always a pin-up for the smart set. Christopher Hitchens called him “a cruel and stupid lizard” and “as dumb as a stump”. In Britain, Reagean was widely portrayed, as William Rees-Mogg said, as a “hick cowboy film actor”. Thatcher sometimes got similar treatment, being mocked for reading low-brow novels and having to swot up on political theory at short notice. William Rees-Mogg recalled Reagan being known as a hick on the hundredth anniversary of his birth and said he, like others, had been wrong about Ron. Reagan had a genius for communication and he changed the world with it, helping to end the Cold War. 

Something about the idea that leaders have to be smart in a bookish way doesn’t quite work. What is seen as intelligent might not always be very useful when it comes to politics. Think about the Mary Warnock example. No-one seriously thinks Virginia Woolf would have been a good prime minister, other than people who put too much value on a certain sort of literary intelligence. There is a lot of value placed on fluency and wordiness, the sort of bookish intelligence you expect to find among journalists. 

It’s notable, for example, that Eisenhower was often criticised for being bumbling and inarticulate at press conferences, like George W, until historians reassessed his legacy. The opening of the archives showed Ike’s “hidden hand” taking careful control behind the scenes. A focus on this sort of intelligence can lead to too much attention to the surface.

The fact is, you don’t have to be an intellectual to be a great leader. The psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, looking at a data set from 1923, found that the more formal education a leader has, the lower their eminence. Let that sink in. The most eminent leaders are the least educated. This data is from a long time ago and what counts as “eminence” is debatable. But there’s something persistent and undeniable about this idea. 

Woodrow Wilson’s PhD didn’t help him to get America to join the League of Nations. Harry Turman’s total lack of college education didn’t get in the way of the Truman Doctrine. Intellectual Wilson re-segregated the federal government whilst school-leaver Harry desegregated the US army. John Quincy Adams was as smart as they get but had no flair for politics at a time of rising party divisions. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand, self-educated all the way, had a genius for it. 

You see something similar in Britain. Gordon Brown wasn’t a bad prime minister, but his PhD didn’t exactly make him a great one. Anthony Eden studied Persian and Arabic at Oxford, no easy degree, but his short disgraceful term as prime minister involved lying to Parliament about military action in Suez of all places. Churchill found his lack of degree no impediment to success. Neither did Lloyd George, who founded the welfare state and led the country to victory in the First World War. Arthur Balfour, the worst prime minister of modern times — who lost the 1906 election so badly that he lost his own seat, the last PM to do so — practised philosophy as his hobby. 

In his piece about Reagan being “as dumb as a stump” Christopher Hitchens showed his change of political beliefs. He had come to see the value in leaders who weren’t all that smart, in the glossy magazine journalist sense. The end of the essay recounts the idealistic, impractical views of his intelligent liberal friends, who would “wish that Mondale had been in the White House when the U.S.S.R. threw in the towel, just as they presumably yearn to have had Dukakis on watch when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait”. 

Life isn’t a press conference

What Hitchens had come to realise is that personality matters. Leadership is a question of values and policy but also of steel and character. Ultimately we are more concerned that our leaders won’t blink in the face of aggression, however well educated they are. Mondale and Dukakis might have had clever sounding policies but they weren’t up to muster when it came to the hair-raising moments. Qualities like decision making, determination, integrity, efficiency also matter. Having the character to stand up for the right values is important too. Aristotle identified three sets of virtues: intellectual, practical and moral. Leaders need to combine all three. Reagan didn’t have the intelligence of an economist but who else could have sat down with Russian leaders and made the conversation work?

Hitchens ruefully concluded, “I have been wondering ever since not just about the stupidity of American politics, but about the need of so many American intellectuals to prove themselves clever by showing that they are smarter than the latest idiot in power.” 

The people criticising Truss for being silly or stupid or not as serious or whatever else are making a similar mistake. It’s easy to carp at politicians who don’t give slick answers in interviews. But life isn’t a press conference! The more journalists focus on this outworn idea, the less well they serve the public. As Hitchens said elsewhere, “There are worse things than simple mindedness — pseudo-intellectuality, for example.” 

I don’t really want stupid politicians in office, but we ought to be able to recgnise that intellectual intelligience isn’t the only thing that counts. We don’t know what sort of prime minister Liz Truss will make, but let’s tone down the stupid talk.

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