What I Really Think About Congressional Intelligence

by Dave Schuler on April 10, 2014

I think that most Congressmen, overwhelmingly of the professional class, like other members of the professional class are smarter than average, maybe standard definition plus or minus. Say, IQs of 100 to 140. I think that really intelligent Congressmen are quite rare.

I think that pertains to the Congressional caucuses of both parties. Republicans aren’t particularly stupid. Democrats aren’t particularly smart. Or vice versa. I’d bet a shiny new dime that 90% of Congressmen fall within the range I’ve suggested and that there’s very little difference between the Republican Congressional caucus and the Democratic one. If anyone has hard evidence (i.e. not based in what they say or what they support or a priori considerations), I’d appreciate it.

You can be smart and wrong. You can be dumb and right.

I think that resorting to notions like intelligence to explain differences of opinion is an error. I also think that attributing differences of opinion to malice is usually an error. Differences in preference are enough to explain many differences of opinion.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

CStanley April 10, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Agree, except that most politicians policy preferences are based completely on self interest, which itself borders on malice (or better terms might be malfeasance or malpractice.)

Dave Schuler April 10, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Something that I wish that more people recognized is how completely elected officials conflate the public good with their own after serving any appreciable length of time in office at all. For most if not all there’s simply no daylight between the two.

It’s so universal that I can only attribute it to human nature.

most politicians policy preferences are based completely on self interest, which itself borders on malice

I think that is what has been called, appropriately, “the banality of evil”.

michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm

I’ve never thought conservatives were inherently stupid. I think the defining intellectual characteristic of conservatives is a lack of imagination. Hence the lack of empathy. A conservative is a guy who is against gay marriage right up until his son or daughter comes out. They literally cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

There’s a reason so few conservatives work in creative fields. The one thing any creative must have is imagination.

... April 10, 2014 at 2:25 pm

I also think that attributing differences of opinion to malice is usually an error.

I used to think that. But after getting to look at things from the bottom up, I’ve come to disagree with that. There is so much obvious malice that it just doesn’t warrant consideration anymore.

jan April 10, 2014 at 2:34 pm

I think measuring the merit of a politician by their IQ is futile. What is sorely lacking in our representation is common sense, wisdom, and having more healthy ideas than ideology driving their goals.

... April 10, 2014 at 2:35 pm

They literally cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

God damn, what a joke that is, coming from a man that hates all non-Democrats, and can’t imagine any reason to oppose Obama other than white racism. I have yet to see you allow that any criticism of Obama can possibly be justified. You’re as bad as a Stalin supporter in that regard.

Dave Schuler April 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I think that there’s not much more merit in attributing the difference between the two parties to a lack of imagination, a lack of empathy, or racism than there is to a lack of intelligence. All that is needed to explain the difference is different preferences, something I think we should agree is universal and inescapable.

michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 2:40 pm


Not a word of what you wrote is true. Par for the course. But then a chronic state of rage is not an aid to clear thought.

Guarneri April 10, 2014 at 2:43 pm

michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm


michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 2:44 pm


Preferences come from somewhere. From the underlying architecture of the brain, from some other effect of DNA, from experience including education, but preferences are not born immaculately. So I think you’re choosing to look at secondary rather than primary causes.

Of course intelligence has something to do with it, not perhaps in terms of raw IQ, but certainly in the type of intelligence, in its development and formation.

Dave Schuler April 10, 2014 at 2:48 pm

G. K. Chesterton once said that a woman’s idea of being kind was to take care of someone while a man’s idea of being kind to someone was to leave them alone. Whether that’s a true generalization or just a wisecrack (and sexual stereotyping), it illustrates my point.

In each case the objective is the same: being kind. The strategies differ dramatically based on preference. It doesn’t really matter what the basis of the difference in preference might be.

... April 10, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Reynolds, you have called me a racist one too many times for me to think anything but the worst of you.

Guarneri April 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm

“Differences in preference are enough to explain many differences of opinion.”

Perhaps, but I find it hard to swallow. I was rooting around in some data on two major current diversionary, er, popular political/economic topics: income inequality and the minimum wage. We have those whose opinion is that the former is attributable to Reagan, and on the latter that opposition is due to pure greed.

The data (US Census B) on incomes shows the upper most quintile drifting linearly upward since the late 60′s with a very distinct step jump in 1992 – 1994. (BTW – I find the focus on the uppermost 1% or .1% silly, since you can’t really accomplish anything by redistributing all of their income – the oft cited solution – anyway.) All other quintiles drift downward since the late 60′s. (and if you dig further and separate wage and capital income you see that the two obvious “spurts” in increasing inequality were in the late 90′s and now – Clinton and Obama. Its the stock market, stupid) This isn’t preference. Its data.

As for the min wage, the CBO reports that increasing labor costs will encourage offshoring, reduce labor demand and increase automation. Quantitatively, the left will cite the 900,000 “lifted out of poverty” (out of 45mm) and the wage increase of $31B. They will conveniently forget to mention the 500,000 unemployed, netting the wage increase down to $2B, with 30% of that higher pay going to families that earn 3x the poverty level (second and third income earners) and the price increases from lower profits. This might be a preference, although I doubt it, but certainly shows a decided lack of empathy; one must admit, though, the notion that this is somehow good does require quite the imagination.

Dave Schuler April 10, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Perhaps, but I find it hard to swallow.

You don’t think the citizens of Minnesota expect a more activist government than the citizens of Tennessee would find tolerable? I can produce 150 years of state election results and laws to illustrate the point.

michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 6:37 pm


Actually, I don’t think I have called you a racist. I’ve said that the GOP is largely motivated by racism. I’ve said that both you and Drew were fucking clueless when it comes to matters of race, its place in history, and its effect on both whites and African-Americans today.

If you have an instance to cite I’ll happily take a look at it and see whether I should eat crow or not. But honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever called you a racist. A self-pitying rage-o-holic with a loose grasp of the truth, sure.

But I may be wrong, my memory is sketchy, so maybe I have. Show me and I’ll have no choice but to admit error in the face of evidence.

michael reynolds April 10, 2014 at 6:39 pm

I can’t wait to see how McDonalds off-shores the fry guys.

Jeff April 10, 2014 at 7:03 pm

As a follow up to your examination as to the intelligence of members of Congress, I think it would be fascinating to explore how many of them have some degree of attention deficit disorder or ADD. I will hypothesize that the prevalence of ADD among Democrat and Republican Congressional members is about the same. Of interest would be the prevalence of ADD among Congressional members as compared to other professions. I note that some very intelligent, successful and creative individuals have ADD.

Seems to me that sound-bite opinions and dogged pursuit of certain agendas is a function of lack of focus on the big picture and hyper focus on certain causes as directed by outside persons and groups. The chaos of competing interests from within the Beltway therefore results in a meltdown for an ADD Congress.

Members of Congress surely have preferences (i.e. feelings of liking or wanting one thing over another). Undoubtedly, most of them would prefer to be re-elected. What they apparently don’t have is the focus to develop and articulate a reasoned opinion that contributes to the implementation of sound, rational policy.

mike shupp April 10, 2014 at 11:01 pm

A standard deviation for intelligence tests is about 15 points, so a politician with an IQ of 140 is about 3 SDs over average. (In fact, an IQ of 140 or better is generally labeled Genius.)

My gut feeling is that getting a professional degree, such as LLD, probably requires an IQ of 130 at a minimum, and Congress has a lot of lawyers, so I’d not be suprised if most Representatives and Senators actually scored at a higher level than you suggest — say a range of 120-150 for 95% of them.

IIRC, Sarah Palin was reported as having a score of 116.

michael reynolds April 11, 2014 at 1:13 pm

IQ is just horsepower. Great when the driver’s good, a quick trip to a brick wall when the driver’s bad.

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