»  National Review Online

October 3, 2000

   Al Gore's Ordinary People

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Cyril Kornbluth was a science fiction writer of the 1940s and 1950s. One of his stories was called "The Marching Morons." The title was taken from the old conundrum about trying to count the population of China by marching them past a fixed point. The task could never be finished, because by the time the current generation had marched past, an entire new generation would have come up.

In the story, written in 1951, a man of our time, a ruthless real-estate hustler named Barlow, is put into hibernation and wakes in the future. Over-breeding by low-IQ types has dragged America down to a point at which the small cadre of intellectually capable technicians and administrators can hardly keep things going. They are being overwhelmed by the marching morons. Barlow solves the problem for them with a scheme promoting emigration to Venus, advertising that planet to the moronic masses as a paradise where the necessities of life can be plucked from ham bushes and blanket trees.

Venus is, in fact, uninhabitable, and the rocket transports, once in outer space, open the airlocks and blow out the "emigrants." A nice touch is that one section of the project is responsible for generating fake postcards home from Venus, to encourage more "emigrants" — a technique actually used by the architects of Hitler's Final Solution.

This uncharitable little tale came to mind last Friday as I was watching The O'Reilly Factor on Fox TV. O'Reilly was covering Al Gore's stunt of bringing some ordinary people into his baggage train to ask for their opinions about things. O'Reilly himself had brought in two ordinary people: a committed Democrat and a committed Republican.

It was the Democrat that caught my attention. She was a young woman, described as an "Internet designer." O'Reilly asked her what she wanted from the presidential candidates. He got something like this. "The President is head of our government. The government should be responsible for providing us with affordable health care and education." O'Reilly: "So you want the government to give you money for your health care and college tuition. That's the main function of the government, so far as you're concerned." Ordinary person: "Yes."

Watching exchanges like this, it's hard not to weep. The lady is asked what she thinks government is for. Her answer, in a nutshell: the government exists to give me stuff. This is raw socialism. The fact that government doesn't have anything to give us; the fact that governments can only give money to A by first taking it from B, and is so grossly inefficient at doing even that, that B's dollar becomes A's quarter; the fact that, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, "there is no such thing as 'government money'"; these facts are not part of the mental universe of this "ordinary person" — and presumably the same is true of many others like her.

Government is Santa. There is a big brass-bound chest in the White House basement full of money. Mean-spirited Republicans give it all to the Pentagon, or to their pals in Big Business. Kindly Democrats give it to ordinary people like me, so I can go to college and visit the doctor. There is no doubt that tens of millions of Americans think in these terms. One's faith in democracy shudders and trembles. The marching morons, indeed.

OK, let's restrict the franchise. People as willfully ignorant as that should not be permitted to vote. So we'll force through a constitutional amendment restricting the vote to citizens with I.Q. 110 or higher (about 25 per cent of the population). That should fix it.

But wait. Intellectuals are even more statist than the population at large. The lady on O'Reilly seemed, in fact, to be articulate and well-educated. Worse yet, our intelligentsia are suckers not only for idiot politics, but for all the silliest and most destructive cultural fads of our age: multiculturalism, deconstructionism, Marxism, psychoanalysis … All are, or have been, championed by highly credentialled intellectuals. All breed in our colleges and universities like cultures on last week's mayonnaise at the back of the refrigerator. It has been remarked, surely correctly, that if, in 1920, the franchise had been restricted to holders of Ph.D.s, we should have had a Soviet America in very short order, and would now be digging ourselves out of the very same pit the poor Russians find themselves in.

The fact is that political stupidity is a special kind of stupidity, not well correlated with intelligence, or with other varieties of stupidity. At the higher levels of the intelligentsia, the correlation may actually be inverse: the more brilliant you are, the stupider your politics. Albert Einstein seems to have thought well of Stalin; Hitlerism got its start in the universities.

Where, then, do you find political good sense, either of the right or the left? My own experience has been that you find it all over. Less of it in some groups, notably in both tails of the bell curve: seriously stupid people are stupid about politics, too; so are seriously smart people. (So that it might actually make more sense to restrict the franchise to the 50 per cent of the population with I.Q. between 90 and 110). More of it, I think, in people who work close to reality — the reality, I mean, that the world gives you nothing worth having unless paid in the currency of sweat, struggle, persistence, boredom, frequent failure and occasional disaster. More of it in people with commonplace tastes. As Robert Conquest asked rhetorically: Tsar Nicholas I went to the opera, while Disraeli went to the races. Whose politics were the more civilized? More of it in Anglo-Saxon countries: how many of us, living in foreign parts, have tried without success to keep at bay the feeling that our host nation's politics is infantile? Beyond these rather rough generalities, I doubt that political good sense correlates with anything.

For any person of what Hazlitt called "the reflective temperament" there is a constant temptation to succumb to the Marching Morons theory: that the great mass of one's fellow-citizens is too debased, or too dim-witted, to make sensible political decisions, and ought to be dispatched to the political equivalent of Venus. To judge from the style of this current campaign, the people who advise our presidential candidates seem to believe in something of the sort.

I would urge them to raise their eyes a little. Yes, there are plenty of idiots out there who expect you to give them stuff, and will not support you unless they believe the stuff is forthcoming: but there is also a great mass of thoughtful decency and political good sense waiting to be appealed to, at every level of society. There is an angel in the marble, which a little leadership, a little bold optimism, could easily bring to view. We don't all believe in Santa Claus. We are not all Marching Morons.

[C.M. Kornbluth (1923-58) was one of the most imaginative short-story writers of his time. A complete collection of his science fiction stories is in print: His Share of Glory.]