We don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the line ignorance became an attribute in American politics. There can be no clearer juxtaposition of the failings of our politics than the anger directed toward President Obama and the deference shown toward the likes of Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. By citing three Republicans we do not mean to suggest that the GOP has a lock on ignorance and that there have not been Democrats who have exhibited their own detachment from reality. It’s just that the Republican Party seems to be a magnet for conservatives who are living in some alternate universe where facts do not matter and the historical record is open to their editing.
It is particularly tragic that Palin and Bachmann have become the faces of the conservative movement, and by effect, darlings of the Tea Party. Their ascension is a setback to the growing influence of women in politics and government, and the obliteration of gender bias. Their heightened profiles and public personas might make for great sound bites and news print but over the long-term they, and their ilk will do real damage to the Grand Old Party. We know Republicans can put forward better representations of women in their party because we have seen it in former Senator Elizabeth Dole, Senator Olympia Snowe and former First Lady Laura Bush. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are resuscitating old perceptions about the capabilities of women at a time when we should be celebrating the breaking of barriers.
It’s not just a woman thing though. We have to cite Governor Haley Barbour for his suggestion that his childhood was bereft of prejudice and hardships for African Americans. His foggy memory of the past jibes with Rep. Bachmann’s recent assertion that the nation’s Founding Fathers were hell-bent on ending the enslavement of Africans and that all Americans once they reached the shores had equal opportunity. It is part of the larger disconnect among conservative “strict constructionists” of the Constitution who fail to acknowledge that the “sacred” document once compromised the humanity of Africans by reducing them to three-fifths of a white person, and categorically denied citizenship rights to the nation’s Black population. The reverence for the Constitution’s sordid past, and the legislators and Presidents that supported the dehumanization of Blacks and Native Americans, smacks of contempt for people of color.
What is probably most disturbing is the acceptance by many Americans for these ignorant caricatures of public servants. For all the talk about excellence and merit-based rewards, we see the rise of two characters that are a national embarrassment. Agree with him or not, President Obama is a poster boy for achievement and the embodiment of the American ideal of hard-earned success. Yet, his critics lambast his academic achievements and work as a community organizer, and label him elitist, while they embrace and cheer on two cartoon-like figures who are not the President’s intellectual equal. These individuals are the worst examples for this nation to put forward to the world community. They are also probably the best thing that could happen for President Obama because their idiocy only sharpens the distinctions between them and the nation’s 44th commander-in-chief.
If the Republican Party is serious about the issues it claims are critical to the nation’s future, and want the rest of us to take them seriously, they will pull these people off the stage as quickly as possible. The GOP should build a big tent, where Blacks, Latinos, Asians and gay Americans will be welcome, but cordon off a section to contain the lunatic fringe that is now dominating the party’s discourse.