Salvos Outsmarted

On the liberal cult of the cognitive elite

Rick Perlstein

Way back in 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald figured out something very shrewd about right-wingers. He discovered, and described, an emerging social type: the reactionary pedant.

It comes in Chapter One of The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald introduces his dramatis personae. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, is chatting away aimlessly with his sophisticated cousin Daisy Buchanan and her equally sophisticated friend, Jordan Baker. Embarked upon his second glass of a “corky but rather impressive claret,” Nick remarks that the conversation has grown a bit too recherché for his taste: “You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy. Can’t you talk about crops or something?” He “meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way”—by Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, whom Nick had known when both attended Yale.

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently.

“This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

“You ought to live in California—” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.

“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “—And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.

In a novel that precisely deploys status markers, every detail here matters. Nick, blithe, ironic, and self-possessed, is perfectly comfortable making light of his preference for intellectually uncluttered chitchat. Tom Buchanan, not so self-possessed, has to rush in to demonstrate that he is smart too—though 1925 readers would immediately understand he is actually stupid, because he’s biffed the names of two real-life thinkers: Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), and the eugenicist Madison Grant, inventor of “Nordic theory” and author of the equally alarmist The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

However, contemporary readers don’t have to boast familiarity with the contents of 1920s bookstores to grasp that this guy is a clown—or to recognize the type. Think Spiro Agnew, braying about the downfall of America at the hands of “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” in speeches scripted for him by William Safire. (Safire dropped out of college to take a job with a gossip columnist. He later got a job as the resident conservative op-ed sage at the New York Times, and also published an “On Language” column in the Times magazine. In both capacities, he never let the world forget he knew a lot of six-syllable words.) Or William F. Buckley, whose rebarbative vocabulary conned a generation of liberals into believing conservatism was a “movement of ideas.”

Liberals want to make you feel stupid, but—na na na!—it’s actually liberals who are stupid: this trope is a commonplace of conservative rhetoric. If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans: that’s the title of a 2007 book by Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh boasts that he performs his program “flawlessly with zero mistakes” with “half my brain tied behind my back.” “We outnumber the stupid people” was one of the slogans of Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on a “9-9-9 plan” that sought to replace all federal taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. Then there is Donald J. Trump, whose favorite word, besides “sad,” is “smart,” and who explains he doesn’t need to attend to intelligence briefings because, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person.”

“Smart” is an identity. “Smart” has a politics. “Smart” can be a road to authenticity, or “smart”
can be a con.

Reactionary pedants love what they call “science.” Recall, for example, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), the pseudoscientific racist tract in which Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein updated Stoddard and Grant’s thesis for the Clinton era with chart after chart of regression analyses, which more responsible social scientists pointed out were skewed to support their biases. More recently there is Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and Trump enthusiast, who, in his online journal Radix (“In mathematical numeral systems,” Wikipedia informs me, “the radix or base is the number of unique digits, including zero, used to represent numbers in a positional numeral system”), writes passages (with a coauthor, F. Roger Devlin) like this:

Organisms may be arranged along an r-K scale according to their fertility and level of parental investment. . . . Humans are the most extreme K strategizers in all of nature: they seldom have more than one child per year and several over a lifetime, but typically devote much time and effort to raising them. Not all human groups, however, are equal as K strategizers. Compared to White and Asian populations, Black Africans are more fertile and tend to devote less time and effort to their offspring. . . .

This relatively r reproductive strategy of Black Africans is a natural response to an environment in which diseases that seem to strike randomly are a leading cause of death. By having a lot of children, Africans increase the likelihood that some will live long enough to have children of their own.

And if we don’t look out, the entire white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff. It’s been proved.

Reactionary pedants obsessively flaunt academic credentials. (“You know someone’s a libertarian on a message board,” a friend once told me, “if they refer to ‘Dr. Paul.’”) They flaunt, too, their courage in daring to voice difficult truths as others content themselves with easy lies. Spencer’s manifesto quoted above evokes the movie The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves must make a life-altering decision. Either he ingests a blue pill and remains behind in the shallow, comfortable world of conformity and ignorance, or swallows a red pill, which allows him heroically to apprehend the world beyond Plato’s cave. He makes the latter choice, of course—as does Spencer, whose racialist diatribe appeared in a Radix blog labeled “The Red Pill.”

Reactionary pedants also grow antsy when others do not recognize that they are smart (“Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair”)—because their greatest fear is that others will see them as dumb. And this, in turn, is why they revere their chosen clerisy—the Agnews, Buckleys, and Spencers—for providing them with easily mustered proofs of their sophistication.

I See Smart People

Dear reader, stop feeling so smug. F. Scott Fitzgerald should have you shifting heavily in your chair too.

Perhaps you were one of those myriad liberals who, back in 2012, posted on Facebook about a study by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri in an issue of the journal Psychological Science, “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.” Its abstract explained:

Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N=15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology.

The Great Gatsby finds that sort of cognitive narcissism risible too. In that dialogue in which Tom Buchanan dresses up his racism in scientific raiment, all of us, because we know ourselves to be sophisticated and smart, identify with Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald had also figured out something shrewd about such—but how shall we put it—cultural sophisticates? Effete snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals? Elite liberals?

Grant me this liberty. I can’t guess whether, in the 1924 presidential election, Daisy Buchanan would have voted for the Democrat John W. Davis, the Republican Calvin Coolidge, or the Progressive Party’s Robert M. La Follette. But I can recognize the kind of person who mockingly agrees with someone who issues a racist rant by not just winking, but winking “ferociously”—ferociously enough, that is, so that everyone around them could not possibly miss that they know who is and who is not an intellectually vacant ass. No less than in the case of the reactionary pedant, her greatest fear is that others will see her as dumb.

These days, the person who does that sort of thing would almost certainly be a liberal—the kind of person, say, who the weekend before the 2010 congressional elections attended Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s massive rally in Washington, D.C., dedicated to pointing and laughing at conservatives while winking ferociously. The signs they carried were along the lines of “ANYONE FOR SCRABBLE LATER?” and “USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE” and “I SEE SMART PEOPLE.” (I’m referring here to a collection from the website Funny or Die called “The 53 Funniest Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which received nineteen thousand “likes” on Facebook.)

That was the very weekend when the Tea Partying objects of their scorn were out knocking on doors to get out the vote for the following Tuesday’s election. Thereupon, the Democratic Party lost control of Congress. I see stupid people.

The Dumb and Damned

What does it mean to be “smart,” and why does it matter to us so much?

The Great Gatsby’s intricately nested structure begins by introducing us to a narrator, Nick Carraway, who relates that his father once advised him, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Carraway, in the book’s dense, crucial third paragraph, explains how this counsel inculcated in him a commitment to observing people obsessively; then he says that though he did all he could to make those observations without judgment, he admits the effort was doomed to failure—because even people’s most apparently intimate revelations are “usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.”

And then, just when you’re feeling good about yourself as a reader for agreeing with his father’s intelligent advice and Nick’s even more intelligent humility in understanding its limits, the paragraph concludes by observing that people who congratulate themselves for how intelligent they are for knowing that there is a limit to their intelligence are, well, after all, just another sort of snob. Nick muses to himself: “I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.”

What finally saves this infinite regress of observations from solipsism is this hard, concluding bedrock: the bottom line here is fundamental decency. And what the story goes on to reveal by turns is that, even as we moderns spend enormous amounts of our conscious energy making evaluations about who is sophisticated and who is simple, who is well-bred and who is arriviste, and who is smart and who is dumb, these are entirely irrelevant to the only question that ends up mattering: who is decent and who is cruel.

In the context of the 1920s, there’s no reason to believe an intellectual sophisticate like Daisy Buchanan was any less racist than a reactionary pedant like Tom Buchanan, or any less vexed by the prospect of “all the things that go to make civilization” dissolving under the dangerous influence of the poorly bred. It’s just as likely that her winking wasn’t so much to mock the content of her husband’s message as to disown the oafishness of its expression.

Liberals want to make you feel stupid, but—na na na!—it’s actually liberals who are stupid: this trope is a commonplace of conservative rhetoric.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was an intellectual sophisticate par excellence, and one of the titans of the early twentieth-century Progressive movement. In 1927 he wrote for an 8-1 Supreme Court majority that included another Progressive titan, Louis Brandeis. In this landmark ruling, the court found that the surgical sterilization of a woman named Carrie Buck was constitutional. The 1924 state law under examination in the case of Buck v. Bell affirmed, as Holmes summarized, that “the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives, under careful safeguard.” That was because “the Commonwealth [of Virginia] is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who, if now discharged, would become a menace, but, if incapable of procreating, might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society.” Buck, you see, was “the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child.” “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes concluded in the most infamous sentence in the history of American jurisprudence.

Holmes ruled as a liberal. As he explained, the welfare of Miss Buck, who, according to the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, had a mental age of nine, “will be promoted by her sterilization.” After all, now that she could no longer become the parent of another “socially inadequate offspring,” she could be released from the state institution. Although Holmes, good liberal that he was, regretted the necessary unfairness of his decision, constitutional principle demanding he rule narrowly, which meant that he could grant this magnanimous gift only to imbeciles domiciled in Virginia. He sighed, “the law does all that is needed when it does all that it can,” adding that he hoped “the equality aimed at will be more nearly reached” once other state legislatures took advantage of the sanction of the highest court in the land to follow Virginia’s example. They did; in short order, dozens of states passed statutes modeled upon Virginia’s, and the golden age of American eugenics was upon us.

Stupidity, Holmes explained, was a threat to national security. And the state had the power, nay the duty, to respond to national security emergencies. For example, the government sometimes compels its citizens to fight and die in wars. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”

Tainted Legacies

The threat of being swamped with incompetence only extended so far. Think of that fellow Tom Buchanan. How in the world did he end up at Yale? It’s not hard to imagine his great-grandfather as a lowborn man of character, drive, and intelligence in the eighteenth century, scrambling his way to the United States—the hit musical Hamilton tells a similar story—and to Yale, and then to some sort of commercial glory. At this point, we can assume, he sired a less-than-brilliant son, who was admitted to Yale because the sons of Sons of Eli were accepted to Yale as a matter of course; he, in turn, likely sired an even lesser-than-brilliant son. But it was not for Yale to decide that three generations of imbeciles were enough—next came poor Tom, who pretended to read books he did not understand, and likely snuck through to graduation with gentleman’s Cs earned by cheating off the papers of his classmates.

And still he prospered, becoming “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven.” In due time, he became rich enough to buy a string of polo ponies and a “cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay” on Long Island.

Reflecting upon this, I began entertaining a fancy.

Researching Buck v. Bell, I learned that Carrie Buck’s “illegitimate feeble minded child” was the product of rape. I learned that the actual reason for Buck’s institutionalization was not that she was feeble-minded: it was to hide her family’s shame at her illegitimate child. I learned, too, that Carrie Buck’s daughter, Vivian Dobbs, was not feeble-minded either: that in first grade she earned Cs for all her academic subjects except for a D in math, “which was always difficult for her,” and that by second grade she made the honor roll.

I imagined that the rapist of Carrie Buck was the fictional Tom Buchanan, out on an idyll while vacationing in Virginia in 1923.

According to the historian Robert O. Self, the eugenics laws midwifed by Buck v. Bell remained on the books in half of American states as late as 1971, and “for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of working-class African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, and white women, compulsory sterilization . . . [was] as real a possibility in the 1960s and 1970s as unwanted pregnancies.” This, of course, was long after the dubious science behind the heritability of “feeble-mindedness” was debunked. It makes you wonder, indeed, if feeble-mindedness, the de jure justification for this particular variety of state-sponsored rape, had ever been the de facto motivation for most sterilizations, instead of plain social control. After all, the legacy-based matriculation of imbeciles at Ivy League schools was a means of social control—which is to say, one of the exigencies by which America’s aristocracy maintained its social control.

Discriminating Intelligence

Who gets to be called “smart” and who gets called “dumb” is not precisely arbitrary. It is, however, frequently ideological, mediated by institutions (like Yale, or Virginia’s State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded) shot through with ideology. Even on the grounds of science, what counts as “intelligence” is more difficult to pull out of the complexities of social experience than we usually think. The most convincing debunking of the science behind The Bell Curve, for example, dismantled the very notion that there is such a thing as “general intelligence,” renderable via the single variable g—the same variable that returned in that 2012 paper purporting to prove that conservatives were inherently stupid.

It’s very curious: If there were such a thing as an innate, inborn, inherent quantum of cognitive ability, and we could agree on who possessed it, why should we grant it moral value? After all, every child knows you don’t judge someone’s worth by their appearance. Why should we just because they’re “smart”?

If there were such a thing as an innate, inborn, inherent quantum of cognitive ability, and we could agree on who possessed it, why should we grant it moral value?

The experience of history suggests we shouldn’t even grant intelligence much in the way of utilitarian value. In a 2007 Guardian essay, Daniel Davies writes, “as far as I can tell, the career trajectories of nearly everyone commonly regarded as a ‘genius’ seem to be marked by one boneheaded blunder after another.” He cites former Harvard president and economics wizard Lawrence Summers, and observes, “Being extremely intelligent is rather like fucking sheep—once you’ve got a reputation for either, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it.”

I know this for a fact. I share something in common with the daughter of Carrie Buck: both of us got Ds in math. Mine was in fifth grade. I had always been deficient in math. And yet, by the second grade, I had also earned a reputation as someone who was extremely intelligent. In the “tracking” educational system I was raised in from second grade through high school, that was that. I was “placed” in the “high” classes: reading, social studies, science—and math, in which, I don’t know, maybe I cheated to get by? Then came fifth grade, when I earned that D. Maybe it was a D-. And yet somehow, through the seventh and eighth grades, my deficiency remained unrecognized. Lo and behold, the summer before my freshman year of high school, I was enrolled in a special enrichment honors math class, where I probably spent most of the time staring at my fingernails. I probably never thought to question this assignment; after all, I was “smart.” By fall, I was found out, because, I suppose, once I got to high school, the bureaucracy making those decisions didn’t “know” I was “smart.”

I wasn’t always “smart,” however. Once upon a time, I shared something in common with Carrie Buck: I was an imbecile.

Well, nobody called me that explicitly. I just knew it. I couldn’t read. Until I was seven. So I was held back from first grade—where, by the end of the year, I rocketed into the “extremely intelligent” bracket.

I have an indelible memory of the first day of fourth grade. Our new teacher, Mrs. Frinke, asked a difficult question, my hand shot up in the air immediately (the fourth grade version of winking ferociously), I answered correctly, and a boy named Jessie Owens, who rode the “short bus” to school, explained to Mrs. Frinke with almost filial pride that I was “the smartest boy in the class.”

The Smart Con

So, yes, me and “smart” have been on quite a wild ride together. Why didn’t I read until I was seven? With the benefit of psychotherapy, I’ve gleaned some insight about how that might have come about. My sister, who is twelve months younger than me, figured out how to read when she was two. She received enormous approbation for this, within the family and out in the world; when my parents sued the school district to let her enter kindergarten a year early, our family made the local TV news. (It’s one of my earliest memories: pretending to “play” with my sister sitting on the tennis court in the park near our house while a news camera filmed B-roll footage for a story about the case.)

My child’s unconscious no doubt perversely groped its way to the conclusion that, not being “smart,” I couldn’t read, or shouldn’t read, or something—until, at the age of seven, I finally picked up a copy of Go Dog Go, and started to . . . read. By that time I had been held back for an extra year in kindergarten, so that, even though technically we should have been two years apart, my sister and I entered first grade the same year, and by the second grade and forevermore, we both together got to inhabit the identity of “smart.”

“Smart” is an identity. “Smart” has a politics. “Smart” can be a road to authenticity, or “smart” can be a con. (Think of Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the biotech startup Theranos after studying Mandarin as a child, launching a company during college at Stanford, and then dropping out; she gulled George Shultz and Henry Kissinger into serving on her new company’s board of directors, becoming “America’s youngest self-made female billionaire in the world,” according to Forbes, even though the technology she was selling apparently didn’t even work.) “Smart” carries within it its own logic of domination, resistance, resentment—the logic that produces both reactionary pedants and ferociously winking liberal elites.

I’ve been quietly obsessing over all of this ever since my intellectually melodramatic childhood, never quite able to figure it out or put much of it into words. One important conclusion I’ve been able to reach, however, is exactly Nick Carraway’s: whatever “smart” actually is, it bears no necessary relation to fundamental decency. But that’s a psychological, or even spiritual, lesson, not an intellectual one. (There’s a distinction it took me an awfully long time to be able to make—one of the things that landed me in therapy.) The intellectual lesson is something I’m still groping toward. It has something to do with understanding how, more and more with each passing year, in American culture and politics, “smart” has become a dangerous stand-in for judgments concerning self-evident moral worth.

Some examples:

• In a documentary about a 2009 war over textbooks in Texas, a conservative leader of the school board explains his position: “Well, somebody has to stand up to the experts!” The group protesting his faction, meanwhile, calls itself “Citizens for a Smart Board of Education.”

• In Republic, Lost (2011), the Harvard law professor and political gadfly Lawrence Lessig writes that political corruption is immoral because it enables “the banal evil of second-rate minds who can’t make it in the private sector and who therefore turn to the massive wealth directed by our government as the means to securing wealth for themselves.”

• In 2012, at a rally for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, a Washington Post reporter describes the signs protesting the right-wing Texas governor. One of them includes this one-word, apparently self-evident proposition: “THINK.”

Whatever “smart” actually is, it bears no relation to fundamental decency. (There’s a distinction it took me an awfully long time to be able to make—one of the things that landed me in therapy.)

• That same year, McDonald’s tweeted, “The simple joy of being extra smart. That’s the feeling you get from choosing the new McDonald’s Extra Value Menu.”

• Also in 2012, after JPMorgan Chase lost $2 billion in a single boneheaded trade, President Obama defended CEO Jamie Dimon because he was “one of the smartest bankers we got.”

And so on. By the time of the Dimon pronouncement, we all knew Obama’s foreign policy doctrine was “don’t do stupid shit.” It is a powerful symbol of the moral evasion of the politics of “smart”: as if the people responsible for the Iraq War thought they were doing something stupid, not to mention the architects of the Vietnam War, whose fundamental strategic logic, known as “graduated pressure,” was specifically rooted in the insights about game theory of the late Harvard University economist Thomas Schelling, should anyone doubt how dumb “smart” can truly be.

“Thomas Jefferson once said the American people won’t make a mistake if they’re given all the facts,” Ronald Reagan liked to say. Thomas Jefferson, naturally, never said such a thing—and just as naturally, by “won’t make a mistake” Reagan meant “won’t disagree with Ronald Reagan.” Ronald Reagan once starred in a movie with a chimp. He was not “smart.” Which was why, a Carter White House staffer once told me, Carter’s strategists in 1980 were confident that if they could only get Reagan standing next to Carter for one head-to-head debate, they would have the election in the bag. They finally got that debate scheduled for a week before the election. At the time, the two candidates were running about neck and neck. Reagan, of course, ended up winning in a landslide.

It’s pretty remarkable how “smart” people keep on making the same mistake.

Smarting Democracy Down

About a decade ago, in my younger and more vulnerable years, I read a quote from William Jennings Bryan that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since: “I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it.”

I can’t think of a more worthy ideal for American society—nor one that America’s subsequent history simultaneously has rendered so moot. I fear the plutocracy of wealth—as do tens of millions of my fellow Americans. I respect the aristocracy of learning—as do tens of millions of my fellow Americans. But who now really believes that we ever possessed in these United States a democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to make the world better for his or her existence in it . . . if they are not “smart”?

Bryan said that in 1907, at a time when only 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school. It was easier then, I suppose, to imagine a world able to leverage the fundamental decencies of those who are not “smart” than it is now, when more than 80 percent of Americans finish high school, and when every respected voice in society strains itself to make the non-high-school-graduated souls among us feel dumb and useless.

I could write hundreds of pages of examples. Perhaps someday I will. Chris Hayes, who is both wise and smart, recently recounted a sort of exit interview he conducted with Harry Reid. What, he asked the retiring Senate minority leader, does the Democratic Party stand for? Reid rehearsed his own impoverished rural upbringing. Then he said, “I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can. And I want those young men and women out there who are looking for a way out to realize, if Harry Reid can make it, anybody can. That’s what America is all about.”

How do you make it in America now? Everyone knows. You get “smart”: you apply yourself to education. Faith in the salvific power of education is an old story among Democrats. Lyndon Johnson, his White House aide George Reedy recalled, “had an abnormal, superstitious respect for education. I believe he even thought it would cure chilblain.”

I’ve always loved that quote. Now I better understand why: often, the cult of “smart” is a superstition. In LBJ’s time, to believe in it was “abnormal.” Now, that belief is collective—quite nearly unanimous. Which doesn’t make things easier for the Democrats pushing the ideology of cognitive elitism most assiduously. “Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich?” David Graeber asked in 2007. “It seems to me the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.”

For if you’re not a part of the intelligentsia, well, how can you possibly make the world better for your existence in it? This frustration, however, is precisely what makes perfectly decent people, whose only sin is that a self-arrogated cognitive elite doesn’t consider them particularly useful, such easy pickings for political con men who assure them that they’re actually the smart ones. And that, all in all, is not very smart.