Is It Unethical To Ban Stupid People From Congress?

In 1978, this last image from “Animal House” was hilarious. In 2012, it’s tragic…because it came true.

The Todd Akin debacle has me wondering why we don’t take measures to block the ignorant and dim-witted from gaining high elected office. I know what you are going to say: that’s what elections are for. But we can’t bar ignorant and stupid people from voting: that’s been settled in court. It shouldn’t surprise us that they frequently tip elections toward candidates that the pollsters describe as “people like them”, and voilà! Todd Akin.

Akin is far (well, maybe not very far) from the  most intellectually suspect member of Congress. For example, Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson once expressed concern that the island of Guam might tip over, like a raft. There are too many other telling anecdotes relating to other members of Congress, in both parties. For those who shrug cynically and argue that it’s always been that way, there is solid evidence that indeed, Congress is getting dumber over time. A study of every word spoken in Congress concluded that the grade level at which members of the legislative branch speak has fallen a full grade since 2005, to just half-way through the junior year of high school. Democrats are slightly more articulate (.4 of a grade) than Republicans as a group, but that just could be because Joe Biden left to be Vice-President.

Why should we tolerate this? These people have our life and welfare as well as the future of our country in our hands, and a critical number of them would be challenged running a bait shop. Their collective ignorance allows them to be manipulated by staffers and lobbyists; they don’t read the bills they vote for because they can’t comprehend them, and they have the attention spans of puppies. The cumulative results of allowing dumb people to govern us are 1) a political class that pitches its campaigns at voters as stupid and ignorant as they are, and 2) incompetent government at all levels. I think this is intolerable, and it is irresponsible of the public to tolerate it. We have to make ignorance and stupidity a political liability. That means:

  • Requiring all candidates for high elected office to release complete academic transcripts and achievement scores.
  • Requiring all candidates to take a standard IQ test, and release the results. I suspect that a statutory requirement of a minimum IQ score would be found unconstitutional, but I also suspect that most voters will hesitate to pull the lever when the test shows that their party’s candidate would lose a game of Trivial Pursuit to a sea sponge.
  • Engaging an independent, non-partisan commission  to create a qualification test for all candidates, covering basic Constitutional content, basic science, essential budgeting skills, American and world history, how the government functions, geography, reading comprehension and communications ability. It would be voluntary, but a candidate refusing to take it would risk the rebuttable presumption that he or she was a Pet Rock, and had no more business making laws or policy than, well, Todd Akin.

I don’t think these measures are unfair, unreasonable or overly burdensome. I think they are, in fact, desperately needed…unless, of course, we are satisfied to be governed by fools.


Graphic:  Future Sight

52 thoughts on “Is It Unethical To Ban Stupid People From Congress?

  1. I am often baffled who a constituency votes into office. Like you said- it is on both sides. It is easy to tell what the distict is made up of, but I still wonder if they know who is truely qualified to represent them. It doesn’t hurt only the district but all of us. It is why I don’t vote straight party ticket.

  2. Who did the study saying the Republicans are slightly less articulate than democrats some democrat or maybe Maxine Waters, and the rest of the congressional black caucus were out that day. Give me a break with the Akin business. The guy said something stupid but he didn’t say there are 57 states or keep calling Navy medics Korpsmen. This gotcha business is beyond reasonable these days and tends to bring congress into even greater disrepute than it deserves – which is a lot.

  3. As William F Buckley said: ” I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
    Frustrating though it is to have so very many boneheads, chowderheads, morons and sociology majors serving in elected office, the alternative is institutionalized elitism. That way lies catastrophe.
    If the voters in a rural district choose an unlettered but smart as a whip dirt farmer to represent them, that is their choice, and right. This type of representative may not be able to compare academically with other elected officials, (which may mitigate the sting a bit when the academically superior officials are cleaned out playing poker with the dirt farmer), but may still be an effective legislator.
    America has always resisted the very idea of a Mandarin class. It’s not who we are. Still, basic math skills would be so nice….a smidgen of science…historical perspective…

    • There’s a yawning canyon between having a Mandarin class and requiring baseline qualifications for a vital job, Joe. We want smart lawyers and judges interpreting the law, but think there’s a benefit to having dummies writing them? How does that compute?

      There is only a loose correlation at best between intelligence and leadership, but there are still lower limits, which is what I addressed. I wasn’t calling for actual limits on how dumb a candidate should be; I was and am saying that we should have a good idea how smart these people are and what their skills are. Are you arguing that a Congressman or Senator doesn’t need to know what’s in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? Because, you know, they really do. How about reading—is it too much to require them to be able to read? To know which coast California is on? To know that the Earth isn’t 10,000 years old? That mony doesn’t grow on trees? Too elite for you? Then let’s elect Bonzo, Bubbles and Cheetah to the Senate and be done with it, in the interests of egalitarianism. And Michele Bachmann, of course.

      • I very much like the idea of a voluntary qualifications test. How to get from where we are, to passing a basic test being the norm, is an interesting problem. Various ‘interest groups’ fighting about it seems inevitable.
        It would be useful for voters to be able to decide, with some objective measure, that a candidate is just too stupid to allow in office. I am well aware that our current system sometimes results in children operating power tools.

      • Jack, there is an even deeper and wider yawning canyon between people who know stuff – and who, because they can prove that they know stuff, can create false and misleading impressions that they are somehow “more fit” for office than others who might not know the same stuff, or know it as well – and people who can actually move the country forward.

        I could be more supportive of mandatory “onboarding training” for elected officials, than of subjecting candidates and potential candidates to some Who Wants to Be an Elected Millionaire tournament.

        • I’m not suggesting that, and you can’t possibly think I was. I want to know the qualifications and skills of the people we elect. If they can’t add, think the stork brings babies and have an IQ less than my Jack Russell, we need to know. You disagree? You really want dumber representatives because they are less capable of fooling us? Talk about a low bar! Talk about giving up!

          • Jack: You can’t put words in my mouth, so you do what you can, “translating” my comment to insinuate that I meant something I do not mean, and think a way that I do not think.

            I want to know the candidates’ qualifications and skills too. I agree on a voter’s need to know. But isn’t what has been going on in election cycles in the U.S. for more than a generation now enough to make it clear to you, that no amount of the exposure and testing of candidates that you are suggesting will improve the quality or performance of those elected, at all?

            Paraphrasing on old slogan: It’s the voters, stupid!

            All the more reason for you to be careful what you wish for. One of the other commenters has already warned of the impacts of protesting and squabbling “interest groups” on any additional vetting processes. Press ahead, erecting additional hurdles to “qualify” candidates, and very quickly, the efforts will be either paralyzed, and/or result in irrepressible, non-stop violent unrest. Jack, surely you can see that you’re not going to even begin to institute what you suggest, without immediately being besieged (and, I would tend to think, deservedly so) for promoting discrimination based on income, prior wealth, geography (like, urban vs. rural, or region), race, religion, language, culture…and maybe even, that thing even the dumbest dummies do, sex.

            • No, it’s the stupid, stupid, and the voters vote for them. If that isn’t what you were saying, what WERE you saying? I’m saying anyone with the brass to run for Congress damn well better know how the Constitution begins.

              As for me, I wasn’t creating hurdles. A dolt who has to announce that he was a D student, scored 320 on the Math SAT and has the IQ of a hydrant can still run…He just can’t hide. Why would you have a problem with that?

  4. The study uses the Flesch-Kincaid scale which measures the number of words and syllables in a sentence. Fewer and shorter words in a sentence make the speech clearer and easier to understand, while adding more or longer words does the opposite.
    So a good politician will try to use shorter words and sentences to be understood, while a bad politician will add a lot of waffle so as to mislead the public.
    But then there is the bad politician who now and again may slip up and use shorter words and syllables thus making it easier to spot his or her stupidity.

  5. Despite all the detestable characters who manage to become electable in American politics and their detestable impacts, I agree with Joe Fowler:
    “… the alternative is institutionalized elitism. That way lies catastrophe.”

    • @Eeyoure

      But many professions require documented “proof” of one’s ability. If you want to practise medicine and be e.g. a heart surgeon – the hospital and the patients would want to see some qualification on paper at some point… No one would consider that “institutionalized elitism” but necessary caution.
      For an annual salary of $174,000 the qualifications for an U.S. Representative seem very few: (1) be at least 25, (2) citizen of the U.S. for the past 7 years and (3) be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state they represent.
      That is not much for someone who gets to pass laws for the good people of the United States.

      • Ulrike: “Professional politician” is the worst kind. What we want are leaders, who could come from almost any walk of life – humble leaders, who prove their effectiveness everywhere they work and serve, despite what they don’t know and despite their known missteps and other mistakes – not arrogant power-mongers, who think they know everything, who foster illusions of their faultlessness, who only appear to be effective, and who falsely promise more effectiveness.

        Yes: those limited qualifications for office that you cite are exactly the limits on government specifications for office-holders which an earlier generation of effective leaders correctly recognized as necessary to prevent the self-entrenchment of a corrupt, inept political class.

        • @Eeyoure
          Being humble, proving one’s effectiveness in one’s work and servitude sound very good to me. Why not put that in the qualifications for an U.S. Representative?

          “despite what they don’t know”
          I don’t see how this could earn anybody any brownie points. Not knowing stuff should be a plus factor?

          That you think these “limits” instituted by “an earlier generation of effective leaders” do anything to prevent corruption in politics is kinda of strange, considering that a survey in 2008 stated that “about two-thirds of United States senators were millionaires” (as stated by the New York Times)

          On CNN and several newspapers the senate was also referred to as the “millionaires’ club” – in 2009 it had an estimated networth of $680 million.
          And they’re not shy about using any! means to get richer. The bill on banning lawmaker insider-trading has been stalled for many, many years. It changed only very recently and then only the watered down version:

          If you go through the members of the House of Representatives there’s not an average Joe among them.
          Where are these “leaders, who could come from almost any walk of life” hiding? Those “limits” sure don’t do much to get them into office…

          Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against accumulating wealth. Mostly people who do so, earned that money by ways of hard work and a cunning business sense. But time and again we are proven that although Senators and Representatives like to take, they don’t much like the giving part. What is a few millions here and there given to charity when they use every tax loophole (which are not available to people “who could come from almost any walk of life”) in the book to pay back as little as possible to the country that made them rich. (To be sure: I’m talking about the country’s buying power here, in a consumer role)

  6. Your third suggestion could easily be implemented now, in this election, just by changing the format of one of the debates to include questions like “You’ve told us your plan for cleaner air, now tell us the names of the three main gases that make up the Earth’s atmosphere. Water vapor doesn’t count.”

    • Exactly. A perfect example. Though it might be fairer to do such tests in written style. On TV, orally, a lot of us might forget what we know, and have Rick Perry moments. Of course…

      • Last time I checked this was done in the Republican primary debates to no avail. Remember the scene when 30% of candidates raised their hand when asked if they don’t believe in evolution…

      • On TV there is always the risk of anyone having a ‘Jeopardy’ moment, and having the moderator sanctimoniously intone: “No. That would be Catherine of Aragon…..Catherine…of….Aragon.”

      • Perfect example???

        [Debate moderator] “We now have come to the Final Jeopardy phase of tonight’s debate. Candidates, you will have 30 seconds to write a response, after I say, “Go.” After 30 seconds, your responses will be visible to our audience. Our live audience in the debate hall will then have 30 more seconds to read your responses and register favorability ratings on them, using their touchpads. Ratings will be displayed next to your responses. Your question is:

        What are the first three words of the first sentence in the Constitution of the United States? Go.”

        What a ridiculous idea for making political campaigns about winning trivial gotcha-games!

        • Ridiculous to expect a candidate for national office to know “We the People”? Not in my book. How about their own names? How to spell USA? The date of the 4th of July? Are those “gotcha’s” too?

          • My point is that even if a candidate gets it wrong, nothing more that should matter to voters has been “proved” or demonstrated by the candidate. The wrong answer perhaps would suggest something, but that (taking any hint) is all up to each voter. And each voter, no matter how smart and educated, is going to be bombarded with so much other suggestion via spin, that in the end neither right nor wrong answers to such quizzing will have any appreciable influence on voters’ choices.

              • Tgt, I am sorry if I have mislead you to conclude that I think there is not a problem. As I said earlier, other than possibly providing training to the winners of elections (and those trainees’ receptivity to such training), I am stumped as to how to lower the obvious and unacceptable per capita, individual, and group-enabled ignorance of elected office-holders – particularly legislators, but not limited to them of course.

  7. This issue is the driving idea behind a limited federal government. We can’t bar people from voting, and we haven’t yet barred people from running, but we can bar what issues they can legislate on.

    If my state legislatures are morons I can easily become a resident of a different state. if my federal legislatures are morons I ca not easily become a citizen of a different country…

  8. I would like to see some standardized IQ test for candidates not to act as a bar, but much to act like nutritional information on food. I know that bag of Doritos has too much fat and salt, but it is sooooo good.

    This is really part of a bigger debate on what makes someone qualified for office. Maybe we should also look at a person’s background and elect a wider range of professions into office. I would like to see someone who has actually done something in their life (in an engineering sense) than someone who is a constitutional law scholar. I probably agree with Mr. Buckley’s quote above, but only because I work on a daily basis with faculty and most academic training doesn’t teach you how to deal with how to solve infrastructure or economic problems. Experience in academia mainly trains you to write reports on problems, file them for a specified period of time, and then shred them (we call it “doing something about the problem”).

    I was just looking at Hurricane Isaac and thinking about how different things would be in engineers ran the government instead of lawyers. Isaac wouldn’t be much of a problem, because engineers wouldn’t let such a ridiculous situation exits.

    (1) Engineers would put a restriction in the flood insurance policies (that you can only buy from the government) that specifies that a claim above $10,000 can only be made on a specified piece of property once every 100 years. We pay out so much money to houses that are flooded over and over again, when these houses clearly should not be rebuilt.

    (2) After Katrina, engineers would have either said “You didn’t buy flood insurance like you were supposed to, tough”, or would have given every person in New Orleans $75,000 and let New Orleans become a nature preserve because it was cheaper. They would not have spent that kind of money to build a fantastic system of dams, levees, etc in a hopeless attempt to protect a ruined area below sea level an prone to hurricanes.

    Of course, many reasonable people would see this as heartless and ignoring the priceless culture of New Orleans. This is a definite difference of opinion. The funny thing is, how many times have you heard the options outlined above as possibilities? They are straightforward ways to deal with real problems, but they don’t seem to even be considered.

  9. As I read this article, I find myself thinking back to all of the elections where I was “holding my nose” and voting for a candidate that I did not really support–just because I supported the other guy even less. For good or ill, it’s a side-effect of having a two-party system.

    I would suggest, though, that the exact opposite of what Jack is describing in this article could be going on; by which I mean that men and women of character and good judgement simply do not want to subject themselves to the media scrutiny–often ridiculously biased and unfair–that would come with running for office, especially at the national level.

    I think it’s likely that because there is SO MUCH digging into every possible skeleton that a candidate might have, and that every detail is going to be made public (and in as sensational a way as possible), that some of the best leaders we have are quite reasonably going to say “No way” and just go about living their lives as they always have.

    Can you blame them?

    …and who does that leave us with? The shameless, the ones who crave power, the not-bright-enough-to-realize-that-it’s-not-worth-it, and the perennial never-done-anything-else-in-their-lives-but-politics.

    I think that making it even harder to run for office is only going to further discourage those whom we’d really like to have run.

    I sure know *I’m* not running for anything any time soon.


    P.S. In honor of the Flesch-Kincaid scale mentioned above, I have constructed not one, but TWO sentences with over 60 words each especially for this discussion thread. MS Word tells me that my post (not including this postscript) rates grade 13.0. 🙂

  10. Jack…there has always been more than a fair share of elected officials who have a background in law. I admit that I am not familiar with the requirements for admission and graduation from law school but can it not be reasonably assumed that a person who has received a legitimate law degree, passed the bar and even went on to practice law has a pretty decent IQ?

    • There you go, Jack – a first argument for exemption from testing requirements. How many more waivers and exemptions, for which candidates, and for what reasons?

      Atheists get a pass on knowing the Constitution because obviously, they’ll have no problem with the First Amendment or with separation of church and state?

      CEOs of corporations of size more than 50 permanent employees for longer than three years get exempted from a standard IQ test, because obviously, it takes a pretty decent IQ to set up and run a business that big for that long?

      Women who are single mothers receive waivers from testing or providing transcripts because, you know, they’re obviously BUSY?

      Any “improved” system of ratting-out stupid candidates inevitably would be hammered and sausage-packed into a mockery of itself, in time.

  11. Ignoramuses vote in every election — voting for the most recent candidate they’ve heard something positive about. That’s why I think party reps should not be allowed outside the polling places. No one monitors what they say in their literature, and most uninformed people swing votes.

    The Founders sought to have an educated electorate. They also sought to have something other than a ‘professional class” of elected representatives. Alas, neither has held true.

    On a personal note, I have told one of my sisters NEVER to vote: she doesn’t watch any news, subscribes to no newspapers or magazines, and votes “concepts” rather than facts. She is part of the problem, not the solution.

    When it comes to morons running for office, you can blame the press for this. The days of responsible journalism are long past. The hard line press of the 30s and 40s were taken for what they were — unabashed support of one candidate over another, regardless of lies and half-truths. Today, everyone seems to think that whatever is broadcast, and whatever we read on the net, is truth. There is no truth anymore. Only analysis of what’s out there, and few are capable (or willing) to expend the time on it.

    Seen the insurance company ad? Big lug comes up to a woman and says, ‘I’m,uh, a French model,” when he looks and acts like a homeless person. Yet the “star” of the ad takes him at his word… why, because “it can’t be on the Internet if it isn’t true.” The depths to which we have fallen.

    And good test-takers don’t make for intelligent legislators. Forget it.

    • We’re talking basics here, E1. A house member who sits on the science committee just proved that he doesn’t understand how babies get made. Why do you think nobody read the ACA? Do good test takers make good lawyer, pilots, doctors? I don’t know, but we still make them take tests. What we are doing with our elected officials obviously isn’t working.

  12. Um…shouldn’t any high school grad meet those requirements?

    Or have I just kicked off the next flame war on our educational system?


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