Cutting Moral Corners

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Last month I wrote in this space about the "Two Nations" contained within America's borders--not the rich and poor nations of John Edwards's anachronistic fancy, but the clever and the stupid, the complicated and the simple, the sophisticated and the boorish nations symbolized for many in the now ubiquitous red and blue map of the election results. Of course, no one supposes that there are not clever, complicated, and sophisticated people voting for Kerry in the red states and stupid, simple, and boorish people voting for Bush in the blue states, but bright Kerry supporters versus dim Bush supporters was the accepted model wherever you looked in the media, many of whose sour post-election commentaries were based on the assumption that the blue states had for some reason been blessed with majorities of bright people while the red states were correspondingly cursed with majorities of thickoes. More than one liberal commentator echoed Carole Simpson, the former anchor of ABe'S World News Tonight, in noticing that the thirty-one red states included the thirteen that made up the old Confederacy at the time of the Civil War and put the difference between red and blue down to the legacy of slavery. Or slave-owning.

But wait a minute. Isn't there something wrong with the whole idea of statewide majorities of smart people? Doubtless there are majorities of bright people at places like the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington or Harvard University or at 229 West 43rd Street in Manhattan and precincts adjacent thereunto, but how can the entire states of California or Illinois or Pennsylvania (just barely) be majority bright? Doesn't that work a bit like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where all the children are above average? Even in Massachusetts, intelligence must be just a bit rarer a quality than that. The wonder, then, isn't that the bright people's party didn't get 51 percent of the vote; the wonder is that it got as much as 48 percent. Kerry voters got a big kick out of the headline in the Daily Mirror of London: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" But really, speaking as one of the dumb majority, I find there's no mystery about it. Most people are pretty dumb, at least by the standards of John Kerry and many of his most vocal supporters who manned, I think even they would have to admit, the commanding heights of the culture. Much more mystifying, I would have thought, is the question: "How can 55,532,981 people be so SMART?"

Except that I think I've figured out the answer. It is, as I suggested last month, that the Kerry voters weren't necessarily all that brainy. For it wasn't being smart that made people vote for Kerry; it was voting for Kerry that made people smart. It's simple, really. The Democrats are by now well-established as the political home of clever and sophisticated people. Not only famous geniuses like Philip Roth and Simon Schama and Madonna but most nonfamous college professors and scientists, writers and artists, actors and musicians, journalists and gay people. Under those circumstances, what better way for someone to demonstrate his own intelligence and sophistication, especially if he is the tiniest bit insecure about them, than by associating himself with all those social and intellectual luminaries--among which, as the Mirror reminded us, we have to include a large majority of the frightfully clever British--by voting for their political party? You could call it the Mensa tendency in American politics, except that to get the bragging rights of your gray matter by joining Mensa you have to pass a test, while demonstrating socially creditable political smarts only requires you to fill in your electronic ballot form correctly--which, notwithstanding post-election conspiracy theories, I stubbornly persist in believing nearly everyone did--and perhaps put a "Kerry/Edwards" bumper sticker on straight.

I think it was Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve (1994) who first identified "the cognitive elite" as a new social class poised to supersede declining ones based on wealth or region, race or religion, but their insight was lost in all the fuss about race and the heritability of IQ. …