Contemporary American politics can be described in many ways–few of them complimentary. One of the most analytically accurate terms would be stupid–bringing to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Theory of Stupidity.”
As an article from the Big Think recently paraphrased that theory, the stupid person is often more dangerous than the evil one. The article quotes an old internet adage on the subject:
“Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”
According to the article,
Once something is a known evil, the good of the world can rally to defend and fight against it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion.”
Stupidity, though, is a different problem altogether. We cannot so easily fight stupidity for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice most of us take seriously. We do not lambast others for ignorance. We do not scream down people for not knowing things. Second, the stupid person is a slippery opponent. They will not be beaten by debate or open to reason. What’s more, when the stupid person has their back against the wall — when they’re confronted with facts that cannot be refuted — they snap and lash out.
Which brings me back to Hoosier politics, and the depressing likelihood that Indiana Congressman Jim Banks will become Senator Banks.
I don’t know Banks personally, and I am clearly unable to determine whether he is evil or stupid, but I’m pretty sure he falls into one or both of those two categories. Banks has generated a trail of Rightwing evidence, but perhaps the best illustration that he is unfit for public office was his January announcement of plans to create an “anti-woke” caucus in the House of Representatives.
The Republican representative from the Hoosier State is first out of the gate in a race that many believe will be filled with other conservatives. But Banks has his whole policy-absent catchall ready to go: He’s promising to form an “anti-woke caucus” in Congress just in time for him to run for election.
Banks now represents Indiana’s reliably Red Third district; he first entered politics via the Tea Party in 2010, and served six years in the Indiana State Senate. During that time, he voted against Medicaid Expansion, co-sponsored bills to drug test welfare recipients and defund Planned Parenthood, and helped pass an anti-choice bill requiring women to bury or cremate fetal remains. (This was, obviously, before Dobbs.) He was widely known as the Hoosier errand boy for ALEC, after carrying that organization’s deceptively-named right-to-work legislation.
The linked article describes Banks as “a classic modern Republican,” thanks to his votes against impeaching Trump, and his insistence that the 2020 election results be overturned by the Supreme Court.
HIs campaign video highlights his service as a veteran and his reportedly working-class upbringing. It also highlights how Banks has fought against China for “for stealing our jobs and for giving us COVID.” … Over the weekend, Banks went on Fox News to explain: “Most Republicans are now awakened to this fact that wokeness is weakness, it’s a cancer that is eating America from the inside-out.” He goes on to talk about “girls sports,” and you know where that’s headed.
Which brings me back to Bonhoeffer, who says that the problem with stupidity is that it often goes hand-in-hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes,
Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity…
More harm is done by one powerful idiot than a gang of Machiavellian schemers. We know when there’s evil, and we can deny it power. …But stupidity is much harder to weed out. That’s why it’s a dangerous weapon: Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work.
Bonhoeffer says we should get angry and scared when stupidity takes reign.
Since stupidity does not disbar people from holding office or wielding authority, “History and politics are swimming with examples of when the stupid have risen to the top (and where the smart are excluded or killed).” Bonhoeffer posits that the nature of power requires people to surrender certain faculties necessary for intelligent thought — faculties like independence, critical thinking, and reflection.
We should never give power to people like Jim Banks. But of course, this is Indiana….