'Some Really Stupid People': Our Catastrophically Clueless Congress

Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared on the scene I’ve fantasized about interviewing her. I wouldn’t ask her about her big socialist ideas or how she’d pay for them; as far as I’m concerned, it’s already been amply demonstrated that she knows nothing about economics or the history of socialism. Instead, I would ask her to find, say, Kazakhstan on a map. I would ask her to name five chemical elements, four Canadian provinces, and three Shakespeare plays. I would ask her which king signed Magna Carta. I would ask her to name one Russian novelist, one French newspaper, the fourth president of the United States, and the third book of the Bible.

And so on. Basic stuff. It shouldn’t be too much to expect a member of the U.S. Congress to be able to answer questions of this sort. Indeed, it shouldn’t be too much to expect a high-school graduate to be able to answer every one. But I suspect Ocasio-Cortez would be stumped by most if not all of them.

And would her fans care? Probably not.

She’s far from the only person on Capitol Hill who’s factually challenged to what I would consider a crippling degree. The other day Cory Booker told an interviewer “I do not speak Swiss.” It seems fair to conclude from this that he actually thinks there is a language called Swiss. In fact Switzerland has four official languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch. I knew this as a kid. I assumed it was common knowledge. I realize otherwise now.

No, it’s not the most important thing in the world to know. But if Booker doesn’t know this, what else doesn’t he know? Think about it. Such bits of knowledge aren’t isolated from other bits of knowledge. They’re part of a superstructure. If somebody doesn’t know about the languages of Switzerland, then there are whole swathes of history – important stuff, stuff that a maker of world-shaping policies should know about – that are obviously alien to him.

In the 1980s, E.D. Hirsch coined the term “cultural literacy” to denote the familiarity with a general body of knowledge that one expects from an individual with a well-rounded education. The very concept seems quaint now. No, not just quaint – today, the idea that a person in a position of responsibility should be expected to know certain things would probably be condemned as a facet of white supremacy, an assault on multiculturalism. Who, somebody like AOC might ask, has the right to tell her what she needs to know and what she doesn’t need to know? Why should some knowledge be privileged over other knowledge?

But wait, we’re not through with Booker. In the very same interview cited above, Booker said: “Tú hablo español, sí?” Hablo there should, of course, be hablas. It’s as simple as Spanish can get. If he can mangle this, it seems a fair guess that he can’t put a sentence together in any language other than English. Which is fine for an ordinary citizen, I guess. But this is a man who graduated from Stanford, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and went to Yale Law School. How did Booker get through all those fancy schools without ever having to take at least an introductory foreign-language course? Hell, he was mayor of Newark, which is one-third Hispanic. How do you hold that job without being able to string together a few simple words of Spanish?

Of course, Booker’s statement that he doesn’t speak Swiss brings to mind recalls Obama’s April 2009 comment to an Austrian reporter at a press conference in Strasbourg: “I don’t know what the term is in Austrian.” Again, if Obama doesn’t know that there is no such language as Austrian, what else doesn’t he know? The mind reels. A person who thinks Austrians speak Austrian must, by definition, be staggeringly ignorant of some of the most fundamental facts of European history.

Further examples of breathtaking ignorance at the highest levels of the federal government abound. Recall the 2010 hearing at which Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) not only had trouble putting a coherent sentence together but actually expressed the fear that the island “might become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.” Then there’s Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who thinks that the U.S. has “lasted some 400 years” under its Constitution; that American astronauts planted a flag on Mars; and that there are now “two Vietnams, side by side, North and South, living in peace.” And let’s not forget Maxine Waters (D-CA), who stated in 2017 that “Putin is continuing to advance into…Korea?”, apparently confusing that Pacific peninsula with Crimea, 4000 miles away on the Black Sea. These aren’t run-of-the-mill gaffes – they’re displays of the kind of ignorance that render a person utterly incompetent to make decisions about global policy.

“Why is Congress so dumb?” read a headline in the Washington Post on January 11. The author of the article, New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), noted that at last fall’s hearings with Silicon Valley leaders, one House member mistook the Apple iPhone for a Google product while a senator expressed surprise “that Facebook makes money from advertising.” Pascrell blamed these politicians’ lack of knowledge about IT matters on the trimming of Capitol Hill staffs begun two decades ago by Newt Gingrich. But is the cure for this problem bigger staffs, or smarter legislators who are willing to put in a little homework? Surely Orrin Hatch, who is no dummy, put his finger on the heart of the issue on January 15 when he said on the Senate floor: "This is the greatest country in the world, but we do have some really stupid people representing it from time to time.”

The whole issue is actually quite straightforward. In 2016, after eight years under the rule of a lazy, incurious dauphin and eight years of a former community organizer who was both incompetent and malign, we actually elected as president a man of administrative brilliance – a man who had established a business empire, created thousands of jobs, and made himself billions of dollars. Is it any surprise that, within a couple of years, he’s given us a boom economy and taken unemployment levels to record lows?

No, Trump is probably not an expert on literature, art, and classical music. But he has to know a good deal about the world around us, because he’s been engaged in property deals all over the world. He’s built skyscrapers, so he must possess all kinds of knowledge about the scientific and technical aspects of twenty-first-century construction. He’s made big deals, taken out big loans, and met big payrolls, so he has a sophisticated understanding of finance and has developed skills that are highly useful in international diplomacy. Take a moment to ponder the things that he managed to do with such success over the course of his business career and you’ll recognize that his accomplishments call for a wide range of learning on a wide range of subjects.

In short, he knows stuff. And that matters. That works.

And ignorance, while it may or may not be bliss, is dangerous. No, this isn’t the only problem with Congress. Dozens of them are crooks or cowards; they’re on the payroll of foreign powers, or are cynically setting themselves up for cushy post-congressional careers as lobbyists, or care only about being re-elected and will turn in whicheverdirection the wind blows. These things matter too. But being incurious and unlearned doesn’t help either. Just imagine what kind of impression our clueless Congress would make on our Founders – those polyglots and polymaths who were steeped in the classics, philosophy, literature, history, and the sciences, who were accomplished musicians and distinguished writers, and who made major contributions to disciplines, ranging from demography and oceanography to architecture and design. Those great men with great minds made possible the sublime creation that is the United States of America.

No, it’s not fair to expect today’s legislators to be the equals of Jefferson and Franklin. But it’s not too much to consider it undesirable for the legislative branch of the mightiest nation on earth to be packed with numbskulls who’d lose a game of Celebrity Jeopardy to the most airheaded of supermodels. It takes more than that, I would submit, to maintain the miracle that is America.