Do We Need Politicians Who Are Smart or Virtuous?

by Bruce S. Thornton

Advancing a Free Society

“The president isn’t very bright,” Bret Stephens writes in The Wall Street Journal, an assessment that raises an important question: Is “intelligence” necessary in a president?

That we raise the question at all is a testimony to how thoroughly progressive ideas about governing have permeated our political consciousness. This is obvious from the fact that Democrats are the ones who typically assert the superior intelligence of their candidate over the Republican. Indeed, every Republican candidate since Eisenhower has been characterized as a simplistic ideologue, if not an outright dunce, a tradition that continues with the scorn heaped on Sarah Palin’s intellect and alma mater. Partly this reflects the unproven assumption that liberals are by definition more nuanced, complex, subtle thinkers than are conservatives. More important, however, is the underlying assumption of progressive ideology: that modern politics in a technologically advanced world needs technocratic managers with specialized knowledge and skills, what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics.”

Yet this belief goes back even farther, to the philosophical debates of ancient Greece. When Plato in the Republic creates his ideal government, he imagines a ruling elite of philosopher “guardians” who are selected at an early age and educated for thirty years in philosophy and mathematics. In contrast, the democracy of Athens assumed that all citizens, by virtue of being citizens, were capable of participating in running the state. To Plato’s credit, in theProtagoras he gives a fair version of the argument underlying democratic rule: for social order to exist at all, Protagoras argues, all people must have thepolitikê technê, the craft of politics, one innate to humans. Thus all are capable of managing the state.

Modern progressive ideology reflects the triumph of Plato’s anti-democratic idea of techno-politics. Hence the belief that a president should have superior intelligence, its presence usually validated by the prestige of university training, the correctness of pronunciation, and the prowess at intellectual name-dropping. But as well as being necessarily undemocratic, this prizing of intelligence has problems. First, how can the mass of citizens truly know if a presidential candidate, armed with a legion of researchers and speechwriters, is really intelligent? We can’t trust university degrees or transcripts, given the lowering of admission standards and rampant grade inflation. Nor are speeches necessarily an indication of smarts, given the aforementioned speechwriters. Correct pronunciation or syntactical smoothness sometimes is evoked as markers of brightness, but these could merely reflect a skill at reading the words of others. Most people called upon to speak ex tempore will mangle a word or garble their syntax, as has every political candidate. Thus it becomes a matter of political prejudice to see George Bush’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” as evidence of irredeemable stupidity, whereas Barack Obama’s saying “corpse-man” for “corpsman” is shrugged away.

But do we really need a president to have technical intelligence learned in the university? Isn’t what Aristotle called “practical wisdom” more important, the knowledge of human life and action learned from experience? Who was the better president, the self-educated Abraham Lincoln, or the Princeton graduate Woodrow Wilson? Ronald Reagan, a graduate of obscure Eureka College, or Bill Clinton, holder of degrees from Georgetown and Yale? A life of manifold experience in the real world of challenge, risk, and accountability can create a “practical wisdom” more important for political leadership than is the abstract technical knowledge garnered in the rarefied cloisters of the academy or think-tank, where utopian schemes are never held to the strict test of real-life accountability. And let’s not forget that most of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism were wrought by those “technicians of the soul” drunk on abstract ideas and theories that seemed flawless in words but turned bloody in deeds when confronted with the stubborn, unpredictable complexity of human passion and free will.

Finally, more important than certain kinds of technical intelligence or knowledge are virtues like prudence, humility, and self-control, the premier qualities thought indispensable for leaders from antiquity to the American founding. Indeed, republicanism always assumes that virtue as well as wisdom is the sine qua non of political freedom. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Throughout The Federalist Papers, wisdom and virtue are constantly linked as the necessary qualities for political leadership. Technical skill or knowledge may be necessary for governing, but without practical wisdom and virtue such knowledge and skills are mere mental machinery that can be turned to evil ends as well as good.

So let’s drop all the discussion of whether this or that candidate or office-holder is “intelligent” or “smart,” something none of us ordinary citizens can know firsthand. Instead, let’s see by their deeds and choices whether they are wise and virtuous.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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