If there’s one thing political partisans love more than watching cable news that affirms what they already believe, it’s calling their ideological opponents idiots. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is an “insecure moron” with “zero political savvy,” declared the Palmer Report, a redoubt of resistance liberalism, last month. Sites like Etsy, eBay, and Amazon, have sold thousands of bumper stickers with the words “My governor is an idiot” superimposed over the state of Florida, while “MoRon DeSantis” has become a popular epithet on Twitter. Meanwhile, in July, conservative commentator Mark Levin dubbed Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “as dumb as they come,” the latest in a long line of like-minded invective leveled at the New York congresswoman. As one Fox News contributor put it, “You expect stupid people to say stupid things, and Comrade Cortez never disappoints.”
That Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most talented political communicators of her generation, regularly setting the agenda despite her relatively small office, does not seem to matter in this calculus. Nor does the fact that DeSantis graduated with honors from both Yale University and Harvard Law School, and has expertly positioned himself as the leading Republican alternative to Donald Trump. To be sure, misogyny plays a role in the dismissal of AOC, much as racism did in conservative claims that Barack Obama—an ex-professor and former Harvard Law Review editor—could not speak articulately without a teleprompter. But it’s a consistent feature of American politics that partisans wrongly label their enemies stupid. Liberals spent years deriding George W. Bush as a buffoon over verbal gaffes that they rightly overlook when they emanate from Joe Biden, even as elite academics who worked with Bush found him to be exceptionally sharp.
While there are certainly examples of genuinely ignorant and incurious people in our politics, individuals like Obama, Bush, DeSantis, and Ocasio-Cortez are not among them, and would not have succeeded without being quite capable operators. So why do so many otherwise intelligent political partisans insist—against much evidence to the contrary—that the lawmakers they hate are not just wrong, but stupid?
The answer is that too many of us mistakenly equate intellect with virtue. We believe that being intelligent doesn’t just make someone a smarter person, but that it makes them a better person. For this reason, partisans who start out disliking a politician’s views inexorably come to deride their intelligence, because they implicitly believe that offensive ideas must come from foolish people. In other words, as long as someone thinks that “good = smart,” they will insist that “bad = dumb.” In this conception, politicians who push policies we despise cannot simply be devious; they must also be dilettantes. DeSantis becomes stupid, AOC becomes an idiot, and both are thus underestimated by their opponents.
To be fair, politicians sometimes deliberately play into such caricatures in order to avoid being typecast as out-of-touch elitists. To take one example, some experts have argued that George W. Bush purposely played up his Texan accent and affect as he progressed through his political career. Others have suggested that DeSantis is doing something similar in an attempt to capture Trump voters. It can also be advantageous for a candidate to play dumb, especially when confronted with tough questions. But such performative folksiness or cluelessness is evidence of political competence, not its opposite.
Why does any of this matter? It’s not just a question of politics. Our society as a whole would be healthier if it recognized that being smart doesn’t correlate with being good. Moving past this misconception would enable us to move past some pretty problematic pathologies.