[This was an address I gave to the H.L. Mencken Club on Saturday, November 2nd, 2013. The theme of the weekend meeting was “Decadence”; the particular sub-theme we addressed on Saturday afternoon was “Political Decadence.”]
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am happy to see such a good turnout for this year’s conference. I assume that no more than five or six of you can be moles from SPLC and the Cultural Marxist websites. [VDARE.com note: The SPLC had announced “[Derbyshire] plans to give a speech with the puzzlingly bland [sic] title, ‘Politics and Intelligence.” White Nationalist Academics to Gather This Weekend for H.L. Mencken Club Annual Meeting, By Ryan Lenz, November 1, 2013]
To them I say: Fie! To the rest of you: Welcome! to another gathering of the Dissident Right.
And that reminds me. Please excuse my doing a little promotion here.
You know how, when you leave home to go away for a couple of days, as you drive away you are nagged by the thought that you must have forgotten something? I was thus nagged as I left home on Thursday, and when I arrived here I realized that my inner nagger was operating on sound premises.
I saw the book table, and you can imagine me smacking myself on the forehead: I had forgotten to bring copies of my recent book, title From the Dissident Right. I apologize, although mostly to myself and my hungry family, for missing the opportunity to sell a few books, and I urge you to sprint away to your computers as soon as this session ends, to order a copy from the VDARE.com website, or from Amazon if you prefer.
All right, end of promotion. To the main topic: Politics and Intelligence.
When I saw the title of the topic, it rang a distant bell. Hadn’t I written something about this once? I did a search on my archives. Sure enough, I turned up a piece I wrote for National Review magazine back in December of 2000, title: “Too Dumb to Vote.”
On closer inspection, however, the opportunity was not such a great one. That column was…of its time. It was topical, inspired by the vote-count fiasco in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, which everyone now has forgotten about.
The heart of that matter was that George W. Bush came out ahead by a very slim margin in the original vote count, but there were a lot of spoiled ballots in several counties, and the Democratic challenger, Al Gore, demanded manual recounts.
The whole thing then went into the legal-constitutional weeds about how many recounts might be done, the deadlines for submitting the numbers, the recount process mechanics, and so on; and it ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here’s a thing I wrote. You need to recall that the Governor of Florida at the time was Jeb Bush, a Republican.
When the Gore people asked for manual recounts in three of their counties, why didn’t the Bush people do the same in three of theirs? Though I claim no inside knowledge, I am pretty sure I know the answer. The Bush people did not request recounts because they believed that any manual recount in any county would unearth extra Gore votes. They believed this because they believed that Republican voters do not mess up their ballot papers—not, at any rate, as often as Democrats do...
For the Governor’s people to say out loud that they believed the spoiling of ballots to be a mainly Democratic failing would be translated as: “GOP thinks Democrats are too dumb to vote.” And that, in turn, would quickly be spun by the Democrats into: “GOP thinks African Americans are too dumb to vote.” The Bush camp would rather be thought slow-footed than get stuck to that tar-baby. Being the Stupid Party isn’t much fun, but in the minds of modern Republicans, it way beats being the Racist Party. [Too Dumb to Vote, National Review, December 18, 2000]
I went on to explore at some length the concept of being too dumb to vote. A lot of people are too dumb to vote, I don’t think that can be doubted. That would include a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans. The number of Democrats who are too dumb to vote is likely greater, because the Democrats are the party of racial minorities with lower average IQs.
Worse than that, however: The proportion of too-dumb-to-vote Democrats who actually show up at the polls is greater than the corresponding proportion of too-dumb-to-vote Republicans. This is because of the different natures of the two parties’ organizational histories. The Democrats are, always have been, better at rousing voters from their natural human condition of political apathy and busing them to the polls.
Taking the too-dumb-to-vote population as a whole, most of them, left to their own free choice, wouldn’t bother to vote. Interest in politics is a fairly high-cognition function, not much found out on the left-hand tail of the Bell Curve. But the Democratic Party at the local level is expert at rousing these people from their beds of apathy and getting them to the polling station, sometimes with financial incentives as a spur. I don’t say Republicans might not do this, but they don’t do it half as much.
Regarding the too-dumb-to-vote demographic, it would be nice if we could contemplate a return of literacy tests for voting. They used to be very common: Some parts of New York State had them as late as 1970. There’s a common belief that the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed them. In fact it didn’t, but it put voting requirements under federal surveillance, and that killed off literacy tests just as effectively as if they had been explicitly outlawed.
I don’t know—although I bet my friend Bob Weissberg knows—whether literacy tests have ever actually been declared unconstitutional. I can’t see why they should be. Many of our constitutional rights can be exercised only after jumping through some procedural and administrative hoops. In my own state of New York, for instance, the right to own a handgun depends on your having passed through a lengthy process of inquiry into your character and habits, carried out by the local police.
As I said, it would be nice if we could contemplate a return of literacy tests. In our present cultural milieu, however, this is beyond unthinkable, so I won’t dwell on it.
And the too-dumb-to-vote segment is only a part of the problem we conservatives have with universal suffrage. Here’s another part: too smart to vote.
People of very high intelligence are especially susceptible to large abstract theories about society. Those of a literary inclination fall for romantic and imaginative theories like those identified by Stephen Pinker: illusions about the Noble Savage, the Blank Slate, and the Ghost in the Machine. Mathematical and scientific types are prone to see politics in terms of engineering; to see human populations as quantities of concrete to be shoveled around. As P.J. O’Rourke said after visiting Poland in the 1970s: “Commies love concrete.”
In my 2000 article I proposed the following counterfactual thought experiment:
Suppose that in, say, 1920 the U.S. franchise had been limited to citizens holding a Ph.D. What would the consequences have been? Is there any doubt that we should have had a Soviet America in very short order, and that we should right now be digging ourselves out of the same pit the poor Russians find themselves in?
Political stupidity is in fact a special kind of stupidity, not well correlated with other kinds. Think of the barmy political programs that issued forth, with such confidence, from Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer and other members of the mid-20th-century preposterentsia, as exposed in withering detail in Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals.
At the very highest levels of intelligence, the correlation between IQ and sensible political opinions may actually be inverse: the more brilliant you are, the dumber your politics. Albert Einstein thought well of Stalin; Hitlerism got its first mass following in the highly-selective German universities.
In my book Prime Obsession, which is about the history of a certain mathematical topic, I passed the following remark about the German university town of Göttingen, the beating heart of high mathematical excellence from the early 19th century to the mid-20th. Quote:
Göttingen at large was rather strong for Hitler. This was true of both “town” and “gown.” In the 1930 elections, Göttingen had delivered twice as many votes to Hitler’s party as the national average; and the Nazis had a majority in the university’s student congress as far back as 1926.
There is in fact a sort of Goldilocks Principle here. In the 2012 election, voters who did not graduate from high school went 63 percent for Obama. High school graduates with no college, 51 percent. Some college, but not a full 4-year degree: 49 percent. College graduates overall: 47 percent. Then the porridge gets warm again: holders of postgraduate degrees: 55 percent.[Exit polls 2012: How the vote has shifted, Washington Post, November 6, 2012]
At even higher intellectual levels, I’m sure the porridge is even warmer. I live a mile or two from Cold Spring Harbor lab, which employs a lot of extremely smart biologists and geneticists. A neighbor of mine who works there told me at the time of the 1994 mid-term sweep by Republican candidates for Congress that his fellow researchers were, quote, “all in tears” about it.
Thus the relationship between intelligence and politics follows the old Anglo-Saxon model of class warfare: the top and the bottom united against the middle.
In the English Civil War of the 1640s, town-dwellers, merchants, artisans, and other people of what at the time was called “the middle kind” took up arms against a coalition of the top and the bottom.
At the top were the Stuart King and the older, more traditional component of the aristocracy, many of whom had remained Catholic. They united with poorer elements of the peasantry, many of whom had likewise remained Catholic.
Support for King Charles also predominated in the higher elevations of Derbyshire.
There were of course some exceptions. The university towns, for example, went different ways: Oxford staunchly Royalist, while Cambridge—where, after all, Oliver Cromwell had attended college—was mainly for Parliament.
The Goldilocks pattern was the norm, though. It continued into British electoral politics, when there began to be such a thing in its modern form.
The poorest classes of the 18th century had no vote, but the petty gentry of the shires—people like Squire Western in Tom Jones, who were regarded as uncouth boors by townspeople—voted Tory and were strong for the monarchy and the Established church, while the bourgeoisie and most of the intelligentsia (Dr. Johnson the notable exception) were Whigs.
The same pattern showed up over here in the War Between the States, with the Union drawing its main strength from commercially-minded townspeople and artisans, while the Confederacy depended more on wealthy planters and traditionalist country people, small farmers of old colonial stock like the Georgia crackers.
I intend no prejudice to the English Royalists or the Confederacy, with both of which I have some sympathy (but both of whom, I am bound to note, lost). In any case, so far as social class is concerned, the post-WW2 rise of the meritocracy has turned the Goldilocks Principle inside-out. Error and folly are now found among the top-and-bottom alliance much more than in the sensible middle.
I suggest therefore that there may be a “sweet spot” for fruitful political participation somewhere around the middle of the IQ range, or at any rate away from the extremes.
My modest proposal for improving our political life would therefore be to remove from the voter rolls all persons of too low or too high intelligence.
I’ll leave it to our constitutional experts to decide where the cutoff should be. If we put it at two standard deviations from the mean, we’d be excluding four percent of the voting-age population. At one standard deviation, we’d be excluding 32 percent, which would be more to my liking.
Dumb people are a burden society has to bear in a spirit of Christian charity and patriotic solidarity. Many of them are our friends, relatives, and bosses. So: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” Smart people are a nuisance and a menace if they are allowed to meddle too much in public affairs.
The political stability of a society depends on its intellectual ballast—the stolid, practical, unimaginative middle: people smart enough to manage their own lives independently and to calculate the general interest, but not so smart as to fall for romantic follies or inhuman schemes of social engineering.
Let’s exclude the rest!
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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