I have to admit — Rick Perry fascinates me. Not so much for who he is, mind you, but for what he represents.
Let’s start by considering the present state of affairs: Despite his lackluster showing at the Ames Straw Poll (he came in sixth), media coverage of the Republican primary has become increasingly focused on a two-way race between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, who came in seventh. So now, three years out from the disaster that was the last Texan governor we elected president, it seems our country may just be looking to call a mulligan.
To be sure, if George W. Bush’s Texan charm lay at the foundation of his allure, Perry has him squarely beat. Perry is genuinely Texan: more “good ol’ boy” and less “old boy network.” No summering in Maine, no Ivy League schools, no national politician father — This man is the real deal. But let’s not kid ourselves: Rick Perry appeals to voters for the same reason that Bush (almost) beat Gore in the 2000 election. They’re both homey and affable, like a warm supply-side blanket. More importantly, both have framed themselves in contradistinction to political elites. That quality alone apparently lets voters forget that, ideologically speaking, Perry isn’t all that different from the president our country was so eager to replace three short years ago.
Framing oneself as anti-elitist is a winning political strategy, particularly amongst the right. Never mind the growing complexity of our day and age; we don’t need those higher educated, technocratic elites running things. No, the proper litmus test for presidential proficiency is whether or not he (or she) would be a fun person to share a beer with. And sorry Obama — though you may be the first president to brew beer in the White House, those artisanal, homemade suds probably come off as a bit too bourgeois.
But it’s not anti-elitism on its own that concerns me. In fact, I would generally consider it a commendable quality, something that a society should aspire towards. Anti-elitism, in its purest sense, is a democratizing force. It recognizes that the collective good supersedes the interests of a select few. It recognizes that substance supersedes background. And who wants an elected official who looks down with condescension on the people he supposedly represents?
The problem I see is this: The present variety of anti-elitism responsible for Perry’s popularity is fueled largely by anti-intellectualism. And insofar as this more malignant form of “anti-elitism” upsets the meritocracy that should theoretically underlie the democratic process, it has rather disturbing implications for the progress of our country.
This confluence of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism has underpinned a litany of misinformed positions, ranging from the rejection of science to the support for damaging fiscal and social policies. It’s why Sarah Palin can make quips about the “uselessness” of research on fruit flies. It’s why John Huntsman has been pushed to the margin of the Republican primary for taking the risky position of defending science. And yes, it’s why Rick Perry can solicit shouts and jeers from an audience when he hides his ignorance of monetary policy by resorting to making thinly veiled threats at Ben Bernanke.
This seemingly categorical rejection of science and, more broadly, intellectualism also implicates prestigious educational institutions — specifically the Ivy League. Having an Ivy-League degree as a right-wing candidate is viewed as more of a liability than an asset; it demonstrates a certain aloofness with respect to the average American. The irony of this position must have gone unnoticed: Just as the absence of an Ivy League diploma shouldn’t preclude anyone from higher office, no one should be assumed to be elitist by virtue of his or her education.
My argument isn’t that only Harvard graduates should be president. Graduating from an Ivy League college is a great accomplishment, and it ought to be viewed as just that — one accomplishment to be considered in the context of everything a candidate has done. We should seek to elect those who have demonstrated not only strong character, but also the intellectual ability to solve problems and improve society. The latter can be proven in a number of ways, a degree being one of them. But returning the focus to Rick Perry, that history seems to be sorely lacking, and not just because he was a C- student at Texas A&M.
Perry loves to highlight job creation in Texas as evidence of his success as Governor. But job numbers provide a very limited picture; indeed, there are a number of statistics Perry is less likely to cite in a debate.
Texas is the fourth largest polluter in the U.S. It has the eighth highest number of residents below the poverty line, the highest number of uninsured children and the fourth highest number of children living in poverty. Texas ranks forty-fifth in SAT scores and dead last in percentage of residents above 25 with a high school diploma. The list could go on.
These aren’t exactly the kinds of numbers you put on a political resume. And perhaps most ironically, the same policies that created these unfortunate outcomes have simultaneously boosted the profits of corporations who capitalize on Texas’s low taxes and loose regulatory structure. And no, that income isn’t trickling down. How’s that for anti-elitism?
My point is this: Rick Perry’s national ascendancy is just more evidence of anti-intellectualism and maligned priorities among Republican primary voters. His supporters seem to like the idea of having an “average” guy be president, but let me be blunt: We need extraordinary, not average, people in the Oval Office. This is, after all, an overwhelmingly difficult, complex and demanding job we’re talking about.
We expect excellence in so many other capacities. If given the choice, you wouldn’t want a doctor who was an average med student performing your heart surgery, or a mediocre pilot flying your airline. Why should the selection criteria change when the presidency is at stake?
David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.