Texas Attorney General and 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott recently broke from his preferred "No comment" line to media questions to deliver a puzzling and preposterous statement on his office's decision to withhold information on the location of hazardous chemicals, as a homeland security measure. As highlighted elsewhere on Daily Kos, he said the new balance between the public's interests in disclosure and security would be for private citizens to simply drive around and ask companies for the information. This sort of statement cannot be taken seriously and need not be further discussed. I mention it only as a beginning example of a troubling phenomenon in American politics: the ability and willingness of the educated classes to sound, well, really dumb.
I'm not talking about the reduction of public discourse to talking points and sound bites. That much is justifiable given the need to connect with the average voter and his limited time, energy and, in some cases, acumen for engaging the issues of the day. Messaging is, if unfortunately, a necessary evil. I'm talking about something else, something that leaves me feeling much more cynical: how is it possible that someone like Greg Abbott, an accomplished former judge, experienced state attorney general, and alumnus of a rigorous, prestigious law school (Vanderbilt) can sound so foolish? One would think that his education alone would lead him to sound reasoned and respectable. We may disagree on matters of policy, and he may be constrained by the need to be on message, but can he at least sound like something other than a total idiot?
Remember Carl Paladino? He was, by all accounts, a very mild-mannered law student at Syracuse in the 1960s. By 2010 he was a fervent--and failed--Tea Party-fueled GOP gubernatorial candidate in New York with a penchant for provocative statements. His statements, even his personality, seem totally dissonant from his personal history and educational chops. I assume he sought to tap the political winds of that year. It's one thing to change a political position in light of changes in information, circumstance, or even a party's preferences. This is reasoned and reasonable, even if occasionally distasteful (e.g., Mitt Romney moving from a self-description of more liberal than Ted Kennedy in 1994 to "severely conservative"). But to change one's very identity is a different animal altogether. It was especially puzzling with Mr. Paladino because New York was not buying the Tea Party brand anyway. It was not just offensive, it was politically unwise. (He lost the race to Andrew Cuomo by 29 percentage points.) Why isn't this transformation itself more an issue?
Ann Coulter is a related but distinct example. Many have claimed that she is nothing but a talented actress, and I am certainly of this persuasion--because she is educated, a lawyer! Stooped in the reason underpinning--well, ideally underpinning--the law. Histrionics is the only fair explanation that might span the distance between her education and trashing soccer as being a socialist plot.. (Not linking to it! Don't read it! Trust me!) She admits to being polemical, but I suppose taking the next step and admitting she does not belief much of anything, or much of anything she states, would damage her image and be a bridge too far from her cash cow of spreading ignorance and discord. Ideally, education would lead one to be reasoned and thoughtful. In short, she knows better. They all do.
As a lawyer myself, I cannot take these characters and their statements at face value. They are just not plausible. I do not mean to suggest that it takes a law degree to figure this out; no formal education is required. My thinking is that these ridiculous statements should not be taken seriously. What should happen is that the credibility of the candidates and public figures who utter them should be vigorously questioned. Joe Biden once stated, in reflecting upon lessons wrought from decades in politics, that it is better not to question the motives behind a candidate's rhetoric, but to instead attack the ideas contained therein. I agree with that generally, but it is simply too charitable at times. Dumb thoughts from smart people are essentially insults to the very voters these persons seek to influence. This has to be called out. The media is too measured and timid in this regard. Journalists and bloggers would do well to say as much.