Country Dumb: Are Politicians Stupid or Sly?

“So, Did you wipe the server or what?” A reporter had the nerve to ask Hillary Clinton this question directly. Her response: “What? Like with a cloth or something?” I guess you can take this as sarcasm or stupidity, depending on which way you lean. Is Hillary Clinton playing dumb? If she were, she wouldn’t be the first politician to do it.

Play dumb, you ask? No, most of them are actually stupid, right? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly true that the list of politicians who have said mind-numbingly stupid things is quite long. There’s a whole book on it: Unusually Stupid Politicians: Washington’s Weak in Review.

Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” It’s easy to make fun of stupid politicians. It’s harder sometimes to see through the ruse (assuming there is one, of course). In many cases, there’s a clear political advantage to being thought stupid. “Playing dumb” might be the smartest political strategy there is. And apparently, it’s been around a while. Napoleon said, “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.”

Why would politicians want to be perceived as stupid? Plausible deniability. Regularly saying stupid things increases the chances that you get away with murder. Think about it. There’s a little part of you that hears Hillary Clinton’s apparent ignorance concerning technological lingo, and you think, “Poor Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t know anything at all about technology. She doesn’t even know what it means to wipe a server. How could she have purposefully hidden anything from us? She’s a moron when it comes to computers.” And you’re more inclined to give her a pass. She looks stupid, sure. But at least she doesn’t look quite as guilty.

But the thing is, she probably isn’t stupid. And she probably is guilty. Stupidity is just an effective dodge. And it’s nearly everywhere you look in American politics on both sides of the aisle. It’s really hard to believe the conspiracy theorists when you look at how stupid most politicians seem. Do these idiots really compose the secret power of the globe? These guys? No.

Douglas Adams, hilarious skeptic that he was, had a theory about that. He believed that most politicians were the harmless looking public face of power. His classic instantiation of this was the dashing moron Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy. Adams’ take on the role of president in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is quite enlightening:

The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.

That is precisely why most politicians are so good at their jobs. They seem stupid. They seem to be getting nothing done. They seem to make horrendous blunders. What harms that come from their decisions seem to be the result of stupidity or incompetence rather than malice. So we forgive our politicians (as morons), and go about our lives as if there really is no fixing stupid.

Hanlon’s Razor states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Most Americans, aided by the media, have fully adopted that view. We laugh, mock, and poke fun at the stupidity of our elected officials. But we don’t hold them accountable. Because we fully believe people shouldn’t really be blamed for the consequences of their incompetence. They didn’t mean to do harm after all.

We think our politicians are dumb as boxes. They might be dumb as foxes. And they know they’re getting away with it. As Hillary Clinton walked away from the podium, after playing it dumb for another interview, a reporter fired off one final question about the email scandal: “Is this an indication that this issue isn’t going to go away?” Clinton responded, “Nobody talks to me about it other than you guys.” Indeed.