The Debt and the Planet of the Dopes


As I write, it remains uncertain whether the superpatriots who make up the Tea Party will send the nation they claim to love so much hurtling into the abyss of default with consequences that no economist or politician can totally foresee.

Nor is it completely clear which planet these extremists have been living on as their stubborn conceit brings the nation to the brink of a totally unnecessary disaster. Could we be witnessing a real-life version of the latest chapter in the long-running science fiction franchise Rise of the Planet of the Apes?


Maybe we should call it (crank up eerie theme music) Rise of the Planet of the Dopes. As in the movie, the real-life drama originated with a series of spectacular miscalculations. It began with George W. Bush's big tax cuts and unfunded wars, which plunged the budget into massive deficits when the economy went sour.

There followed President Obama's stimulus plan, which economists such as Paul Krugman contend was insufficiently robust to pull us out of recession and put people back to work.

And then came the long imbroglio over health care reform, during which Obama exhausted much of his political capital, and restive forces of the reactionary populists (funded secretly by wealthy ultraconservatives such as the notorious Koch brothers) arose and seized control of the political dialogue.

Now we are at the part of the movie in which the newly empowered and increasingly bold simians revolt and bring down the system in the name of justice and freedom — but this is also where the real-life script divulges from the cinematic scenario.

Because unlike in the movie, the rebels in Rise of the Planet of the Dopes are dumber than the establishmentarians they are trying to displace. Indeed, they wear their ignorance like a badge of honor. They are really proud of it.

I first noticed the re-emergence of this tendency during the 2008 presidential campaign, when GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made a virtue of her lack of a "big, fat résumé." It gained strength during the inflammatory early days of the Tea Party, whose members redefined Obama as a socialist alien seeking to impose death panels on the elderly through health care reform.


It has reached new heights of stupidity since a hundred or so Tea Party sympathizers were elected to the House of Representatives last year in a backlash against Obama, fueled largely by blind rage and chauvinistic nostalgia for the supposedly good old days of Ronald Reagan. "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," its elderly constituents proclaimed, blithely unaware of the absurd contradiction that they had embraced.

And now, to mix a metaphor, the monster is spiraling out of control. More-conventional conservatives, like House Speaker John Boehner, thought they could channel the Tea Party's fervor. But instead of looking to politicos of Boehner's ilk for leadership, the faithful sought divine inspiration. South Carolina's Tim Scott, one of two black Tea Party members of Congress, explained why he is not overly concerned about the consequences of defaulting on the national debt: "I hope the Lord blesses our nation in a way that is measurable."


Well, pardon me, but Scott's a dope, and so are the multitudes who agree with him. Like Samson, they'd rather tear down the building than find a practical solution to the nation's problems. They are so rigid and intractable that they make mossback right-wingers like Boehner look good. Maybe this isn't Rise of the Planet of the Dopes we're watching, after all. Maybe it's a rerun of that other movie, Idiocracy.

Jack White, a regular contributor to The Root, has covered national politics for three decades. 


is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.