I assume that, by now, the numerical minority of you who did not send me links to Christine O’Donnell’s First Amendment gaffe yesterday have heard about it. In a debate with Chris Coons before, of all people, an audience of law students, the Delaware Senate candidate demanded to know “where in the Constitution” is the separation of church and state. After her opponent recited the establishment clause (pretty much from memory, although he missed a couple of words,) she remained incredulous, saying, “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?” Newspaper accounts were beautiful, but they miss what is perhaps the best part: the four or so minutes after O’Donnell sticks Coons with her “where in the Constitution?” question but before she realizes it’s a gaffe. During that time, she smirks at the crowd, mugs during her opponent’s answers and generally acts like she’s just checkmated Vladimir Nabokov. It’s an almost physically painful study in dramatic irony, and it captures the essence of Christine O’Donnell.
The exchange comes at about the 2:37 mark, when Coons asserts that separation of church and state is one of the country’s founding principles. O’Donnell’s famous retort comes shortly thereafter, followed by the audience’s gasps, but look at her response at 2:56—beaming at the audience. She thinks they are laughing because she has resoundingly countered Coons’s argument. She has scored. And that elation is visible on her face for the next four minutes, right up until she realizes she was wrong.
It’s questionable whether she even does. Daniel Foster at the National Review bent over backwards to argue that O’Donnell was obviously arguing that the establishment clause is uni-directional, and “limits the state’s meddling in the practice of religion and not vice versa.” Clearly, that’s why she heard the establishment clause recited and expressed incredulity at its even being in there. Foster’s argument is political hackwork, but O’Donnell has since offered various defenses of her own. Many of them would be plausible, were it not for her face during those four minutes.
It is the face of ignorance proud. To appreciate it, one must remember that there is no way Christine O’Donnell knew she was right. It’s not like she had some other First Amendment in her mind that she knew and believed in confidently, because there is no other First Amendment. Where Chris Coons’s Yale-educated ass had the whole thing sitting ready, the corresponding space in O’Donnell’s head was occupied by nothing, or maybe a dog chasing a bee. Yet she was sure she got him.
That O’Donnell’s mind can confidently accept the simultaneous propositions 1) I just totally burned Chris Coons on the contents of the Constitution and 2) I cannot think of the contents of the Constitution right now tells us something about her worldview. It is founded on the principle that you can know stuff without learning stuff. O’Donnell did not know the words of the First Amendment, but she was confident that she knew what it said—so confident that she staked a senatorial debate on her authority.
That’s the same confidence that convinced her she should be a senator in the first place. She has no job, she’s defaulted on her mortgage, she lied about graduating from college for fifteen years and every time she goes on TV the whole country makes fun of her, but she still believes she is one of the 100 Americans best suited to draft the nation’s laws.
Why? What weird mechanism in O’Donnell’s brain makes her look at Chris Coons or Mike Castle—two career politicians with decades of executive experience—and think that she knows better about running government, about the First Amendment, about everything? Whatever it is, I suspect that it is connected to her insistence that she is just like us.
O’Donnell’s line in this campaign has been that she is an ordinary person—an argument she sometimes takes to disturbing degrees. Exactly how normal she is—no job, a townhouse in Wilmington on the brink of foreclosure, a life spent preventing teenagers from having sex—is debatable, but there’s no question that she believes she has a nation behind her. In this sense, she captures the essence of the Tea Party. She may not know what’s in the Constitution or have a lot of concrete plans for how to fix Washington, but she must know better than the rascals who are already doing it, because dammit, she has common sense.
“Common sense” is, of course, a nice way of saying “no particular expertise.” People of a better character might regard that as a reason to be cautious, not a qualification to plunge forward. But for thousands of Americans at this political moment, certainty is not a product of knowledge so much as a substitute. They are a proud nation, and they have risen up to bestow their knowledge on those of us misguided elites who have wasted our time learning stuff. I would say Christine O’Donnell is only pretending to be one of them, were it not for that smile.