I listened–very briefly–to the Congressional hearings on the unfortunate, embarrassing roll-out of the federal Affordable Care site. The problems with that site have been amply documented, and I certainly don’t want to minimize what they tell us about the current level of bureaucratic competency–in this case, the ability of federal officials to adequately supervise and manage private-sector contractors.
What I heard of the proceedings didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the website’s problems, but they did provide an epiphany of sorts: when you elect as your Representatives people who are undistinguished by reason of either intellect or character, you get a legislature that is unequal to the challenges of the 21st–or any–Century.
There is nothing wrong with members of Congress not knowing much about the technical aspects of the Internet. But there is something very wrong when those same Congressmen posture and grandstand as if they were experts.
The hearings were yet another dreary reminder of an all-too-common experience: a Senator–or more often, a Representative–pontificating about matters he or she clearly knows little or nothing about, citing “evidence” that is erroneous, non-existent or fabricated, in support of nonsensical positions increasingly divorced from the reality of a complex world. (During the recent government shutdown, this was a more-than-daily occurrence.)
What I want to know is, why? Why have we elected so many empty suits–self-important ciphers who are dismissive of science, slavishly attentive to the uninformed passions of their most extreme constituents, unschooled in basic economics, and contemptuous of education and expertise?
When did intellectual achievement become “elitist”? When did degrees from highly ranked schools become a source of ridicule from the right? When did rightwing pundits start dismissing those we used to call “the best and brightest” as “snobs” and “pointy-headed intellectuals”?
What prompted this latest eruption of American anti-intellectualism?
I can’t answer my own question with any assurance, but I can’t help thinking this sad phenomenon began in the early 1980s with the constant denigration of government as a mechanism for collective action–government as problem rather than solution. When government is seen as an inept enterprise–when “public service” becomes an oxymoron–how can we expect it to attract our most talented and public-spirited citizens?
The low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After all, why would the moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann or Louis Gohmert?