It's a perennial question for those following American politics and movement conservatism specifically – is this or that political figure evil - or stupid? Maybe he or she's just crazy? Or is it some mix?
Sometimes the answer's moot, but it can be important to figure out for accurate political analysis - or at least on-target mockery. Roy Edroso included a stupid-evil ratio for all the conservatives in 2008's "Official Village Voice Election-Season Guide to the Right-Wing Blogosphere." I find myself returning to this question constantly, and probably looked at it in most depth in "Diagrams in Conservatism." Blue Gal and Driftglass delivered a great podcast playing the stupid, evil or crazy game for prominent conservatives (it's about an hour long, but it flies by). The Daily Show had a wonderful Team Evil versus Team Stupid bit on Fox News. And back in October, Rachel Maddow graphed the "kookiness-viability" scale of conservative candidates (with a shout-out to the "hot-crazy" scale to boot). It's both a game and a serious issue.
A stupid-evil or stupid-evil-crazy ratio is useful, but doesn't capture quantity, influence and other useful factors (the originality of someone's plot to destroy America, their favorite straw man opponent, the best form of medication for that person, and so on). Christine O'Donnell has said some shockingly stupid things, it's true, and beats even Sarah Palin in that category, but currently Palin has far more influence. Likewise, George W. Bush wielded far more power than either of them. Furthermore, while Bush's incurious nature remains legendary, and he was a piker compared to Cheney in the evil category, it would be a grave mistake to let Bush off the hook on the "evil" front. Clearly, we need better metrics here.
Wingnut trading cards with stats of some sort might work, but in the meantime, I wanted to try out a visual/graphic approach. The Stupid-Evil-Crazy graphic above relates to this model:
In this model (which riffs on an old Bruce Reed article, and is explained seriously in this long post, and more satirically here), "wonk" doesn't necessarily mean intellectual, it means anyone who's reality-based and interested in good governance:
The wonks aren't always right, and a great deal of them aren't ignorant about politics, although many wonks retain the capacity to be stunned by really atrocious hackdom. However, the wonks tend to arrive at good policy answers more often than hacks because that's their aim. Obviously some political power, whether through elected office or a citizen movement, is necessary to enact good policies. And sometimes, the smart political move is also good policy, hence the overlap between the circles in the diagram. Still, pure hacks see power and political gamesmanship as their own ends, and their efforts often oppose good policy. Meanwhile, the zealots occasionally stumble upon a good policy, but they're far more likely to take a side in a power struggle framed by the hacks.
Wonks of all stripes generally play fine together. Hacks are a necessary part of politics, and not all of them or the zealots are evil or destructive. The Dems have quite a few hacks, and some zealots as well. But the GOP is absolutely dominated by hacks and zealots, and it's a serious problem. Those few sane, honest, responsible conservatives left have been hunted near to extinction by the GOP, and the survivors wield little to no power or influence. Congressional Republicans have chosen obstructionism even on basic measures, and have refused to vote for bills even after getting concessions. Meanwhile, many Republicans say or actually believe things that simply aren't factually true.
Here's a more detailed version of the Stupid-Evil-Crazy graphic above:
Let's break this down. This model doesn't apply exclusively to conservatives, of course, and can be used simply as a way to explore why bad decisions are made. Stupid covers problems centered on intelligence, most of all ignorance and lack of curiosity. No one can be an expert in everything, of course, and per the wonk description above, sometimes smart, well-intentioned people make mistakes. Some problems can only be solved through trial and error. However, wonks (reality-based people interested in competence) typically make different sorts of mistakes than do hacks or zealots, or in this model, make different decisions from the stupid, the evil and the crazy. The wonks may be unaware of something, but they're trying their best.
The bigger problem is when stupidity is a conscious choice or one made by default. For instance, both George W. Bush and Sarah Palin were/are proudly incurious. One of the most inexcusable things about Bush in terms of character was that he refused to grow into the role of President of the United States. Insecure and aggressively anti-intellectual, he used the notion of his "gut" to trump legitimate expertise. He was happy to stay in the bubble Cheney constructed, and regardless of any policy issues, Bush was an absolutely horrendous manager. Likewise, Sarah Palin wears her ignorance as a badge of honor, and her groupies adore her for it. To quote a friend: "I want a president who's smarter than me!" (Jay Smooth's got a great take on this, too.) Being competent, being qualified, and being reality-based is denounced as terribly elitist by movement conservatives. (Successful grifting shows a certain type of intelligence, but we're talking about the ability to understand the basics of important policies and to govern well.)
Crazy covers problems of emotion, whether an excess of negative feelings or a lack of basic positive ones. (We're using "crazy" in the colloquial sense, not in the "mentally ill" sense - although that may apply for some people.) While many right-wingers aren't that, um, well-informed, it's their craziness that really defines them. "Obama is a Muslim," "death panels," centrism is "socialism," you name it – the right-wing rank and file truly believes some crazy shit. They're largely impervious to facts because of their strong emotional attachment to their beliefs; challenging them actually tends to reinforce their convictions. It would be funny if the consequences weren't so dire. Meanwhile, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter and other social conservatives have long been waging a vicious war on compassion itself. From Nixon's Southern Strategy to Reagan's welfare queens to Bush's unnecessary war with Iraq, most of conservative politics over the past 50 years has depended on whipping up fear and spite.
Evil covers problems of morality. Choose another term if you like, but as I've written before, I don't think "evil" should be reserved only for fictional characters like Darth Vader. Acting in self-interest is fine, but evil is the willingness or eagerness to significantly hurt others in the process, or a general ethos of selfishness and recklessness. Providing for one's family isn't evil. Actively working to screw over the poor and middle class when you're rich and powerful is evil. So is simply not giving a damn when your actions (or clear inaction) will cause unnecessary suffering to one's fellow human beings. The evil tend to be focused on power - and powerful, destructive people tend to be more evil than stupid or crazy.
Let's apply the Stupid-Evil-Crazy Vortex to a specific issue, climate change (specifically, climate change caused by humans). The evil angle here is pretty obvious. The oil industry wants to monopolize the energy market and make obscene profits, and renewable energy threatens that. Thus, conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, funded by ExxonMobil, will do things like offering $10,000 to a scientist willing to challenge the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A recent To the Point episode focused on climate change and its deniers; the "evil" strategy is to sow doubt and impede environmental reforms as much as possible. Now, smart evil people might think, hmm, damaging the planet won't be good for my descendents, but "stupid-evil" is defined by its recklessness, as shown on the diagram. Climate change denial has also become a core part of conservative dogma – as Ron Brownstein has noted, "it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here."
Obviously not everyone can be an expert on climate science, but it's not difficult to grasp the general trends of global warming and the need for action. Citizens without much information or understanding of science, though, are more likely be fooled by global warming denial propaganda. And while some of those pushing climate change denial are evil, some are legitimately stupid. Even behind closed doors, some Republicans really don't believe in global warming. Senator James Inhofe apparently thought that photos of icicles in Buffalo, NY proved that global warming wasn't real, and has claimed that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” While Inhofe is certainly capable of being evil (and is a bit crazy), the icicle example earned him justified ridicule. He wouldn't have used it if he actually understood the issue. Stupidity might not be his driving force, but it's probably his defining characteristic on the issue.
Some people reject the idea of climate change because it's legitimately scary or because it threatens other beliefs they hold. I'm a bit sympathetic to that (if they're not obnoxious), but that would put them in the crazy portion of the graphic. For them, personal profit or lack of intelligence aren't as relevant as strong feelings or a cognitive dissonance. Bridging the stupid-crazy gap is Congressman John Shimkus, who argued that global warming couldn't destroy the Earth, because in the Bible God said he wouldn't inflict another Great Flood upon the Earth or otherwise destroy it. Of course, even if one shares Shimkus' religion, one doesn't need to take the Bible literally, and even if one took the Bible literally, the passage Shimkus cites still allows for human beings to destroy the planet all on their own. Regardless, the notion that we don't have any responsibility to reduce pollution because God will save us is both stupid and crazy. I'm assuming Shimkus was sincere, and that his strong personal, emotional attachment to his beliefs is the main reason he rejects empirical facts (or renders them irrelevant). Meanwhile, also in the crazy category are all those conservatives who brag about driving gas guzzlers or running up their energy bills just to piss off liberals. It's childish, spiteful, and a nutty approach to personal finances.
What about other issues? On health care reform, many Americans were unaware of how other countries handle health care more effectively, but that's not really their fault. Stupidity came in when anyone believed that insurance companies had their customers' best interests at heart and could be trusted, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Following a familiar script, conservative leaders invested heavily in "the crazy," concocting scary tales of death panels, and feeding spite over the notion of "other people" (typically poor and non-white folks) "freeloading" off of a new system. In the aughts as in the '90s, the Republican plan was to pursue power, even if it meant ignoring a serious problem, lying shamelessly, and screwing over their own constituents. That's pretty evil, and sadly, also nothing new. Almost all of the reality-based debates on health care reform were among liberals.
On economics and fiscal matters, unawareness yet again plays a major role, as most Americans have little idea about how unequal wealth is in the United States, or that it's grown to Gilded Age levels in the past 30 years. Stupidity arrives when people consistently vote against their own economic interests. Craziness comes in different flavors, but there's the spite factor of not wanting some other demographic group to do well, and the lottery mentality of opposing raising taxes on the rich because one day you might hit the jackpot. The evil angle is fairly clear – championing a system which makes a small group fabulously wealthy while leaving everyone else struggling is horrendous. Working to destroy any social safety net in addition to that is just unconscionable. (However, some of the sore winners really do believe what they're saying.)
Feel free to improve on this graphic or these divisions; I'll probably play with it more in future posts. If anyone wants to help develop more detailed stupid-evil-crazy stats, great. I do think most of the destructive figures in American politics have at least 10% in each category, though. For instance, while Christine O'Donnell is definitely stupid, some of her ideas are also genuinely crazy, and she's also a liar, so she doesn't get off scot-free on the evil front. Meanwhile, while Newt Gingrich is almost entirely evil, he's occasionally unwise (stupid) in his choice of evil remarks, and as a raging egomaniac, he's a bit crazy. Still, that only speaks to ratios, and not to power, influence and other important characteristics.
Hanlon's Razor is "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." It's funny and often true, at least when it comes to regular people. Plus, motivation can be moot sometimes. However, when it comes to the powerful - Don't Discount the Evil.