What Do You Know?

Alan Jacobs wrote an incredible post about the state of our politics. He echoes a lot of what I believe to be not only the failings of our political body, but how to even describe it.

If you’re running for office, I couldn’t care less how old you are — unless you’re over 80, in which case actuarial issues kick in. What I care about is this: What do you know? Can you summon to mind the general outlines of the Constitution of the United States? Are you aware of any distinctive, or especially controversial, laws of the state you live in? If you were to be elected to office, can you make a reasonable guess at the legal and political issues that are likely to confront you, and how they are affected by existing laws? Do you understand that there’s no hate speech” exception to the First Amendment? Do you understand how Facebook makes money? Do you grasp why a rogue employee can’t tinker with Google’s algorithms to punish conservatives? Have you seen, and do you comprehend, the evidence for anthropogenic climate change? What do you know? 

People sometimes refer to the Trump administration as an idiocracy: rule by the idiotic. I don’t think that’s quite right, first because Trump has a certain serpentine cunning, but also because the idiot, etymologically, is the private person, the person in his own world. Idiots don’t run for office, neither do they vote.

Others call the current regime a kakistocracy: rule by the worst. It’s a reasonable designation. The more I have thought about it the more convinced I have become that Americans elected as their President the single most comprehensively disqualified public figure for the job: a man disqualified by temperament, by character, by inexperience, by vulnerability to blackmail — and by sheer ignorance.

And it’s that last point that makes me want to call the current regime by a different name: it is, I think, an agnoiocracy — rule by the ignorant. Rule by know-nothings. Most of the people who voted for Trump are not as crassly venal as he is, but they tend to be equally ignorant. It was their ignorance (or denial — it amounts to the same thing) of the facts of our political order that made them think that Trump could be a successful president, and their ignorance of Trump’s non-televised history that made them think that he could be trusted to keep any promise that is not in his direct interest to keep.

When children are small they make messes, and they do so because they’re ignorant. It’s not their fault: they haven’t been around very long, they don’t have a lot of experience with cause and effect. So they pour orange juice on the carpet, and take Sharpies to the walls — leaving messes for their parents and other guardians to clean up.

Our infantile agnoiocracy — and I include in it the legislative as well as the executive branch, and Democrats as well as Republicans — is making enormous messes that later on we’ll all have to clean up, if we can. And that’s why, from now on, when I’m looking at people running for office, the chief question I’ll be asking will not involve their positions on issues. I’ll ask: What do you know? Have you sufficiently remedied your natural ignorance that you are unlikely to make messes as big as the ones we’re now faced with?

December 19, 2018

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