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Anti-intellectualism and conservatives


Jon Chait points out that the dominant strain of American conservatism (which didn’t always dominate the GOP to anything like the extent it does today) has been overtly and aggressively anti-intellectual for a long time:

The belief that the government should base its policy on neutral expertise dates back to the Progressive Era. The conservative movement has always recoiled at this model. Conservatives believed that elected officials ought to draw their guidance from the timeless limited-government values of the Constitution, which had been forgotten by the technocratic elites, but lived on in the simple values of ordinary people. A 1951 editorial in The Freeman, a conservative magazine, stated, “The truly appalling phenomenon is the irrationality of the college-educated mob that has descended upon Joseph R. McCarthy.” Ronald Reagan’s immortal “A Time for Choosing” speech declared the issue of the 1964 election to be “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Conservative hatred of bureaucratic expertise, fancypants college professors, books with big words and not many pictures etc., was for many years in some tension with the obviously elite social and educational backgrounds of various GOP leaders. But all that began to change with Reagan, and accelerated with the sudden apotheosis of Bible Spice Sarah Palin in 2008:

The vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin represents an important marker in the evolution of the Republican Party. A candidate who plainly lacked familiarity with national-level public policy was nonetheless not only defended by conservatives, but embraced with a fervor that exceeded the grudging enthusiasm of the candidate who selected her. That liberals abhorred her as a rube merely served to confirm her authentic membership in the conservative tribe. “This is not the first time that I’ve seen a governor being questioned by some, quote, ‘expert,’” insisted John McCain in her defense. “I remember that Ronald Reagan was a cowboy.”

Ronald Reagan was only a cowboy in the movies but whatever.

Jon doesn’t reference a key moment in the transformation of stupidity into a prime virtue for American’s maximum leader: Peggy Noonan’s amazing 2004 paean to George W. Bush’s (Phillips Academy, Yale BA, Harvard MBA) plain-spoken folk wisdom:

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He’s normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He’s not exotic. But if there’s a fire on the block, he’ll run out and help. He’ll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, “Where’s Sally?” He’s responsible. He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, “I warned Joe about that furnace.” And, “Does Joe have children?” And “I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it’s formidable and yet fleeting.” When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain’t that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain’t that guy. Americans love the guy who ain’t that guy.

Donald Trump, of course, makes Bush the Lesser look like Isaiah Berlin. But despite his ludicrous proclamations of how just how smart and Ivy-educated he is, The Base loves Trump because they recognize he’s actually one of them, i.e., a semi-literate loudmouth who hasn’t read five books cover to cover in his life, and who probably couldn’t name the three branches of the federal government if you spotted him two of them.

This, by the way, is why attempts to bring conservative “balance” to American academia are either cynical ploys or pitifully misguided: While there have always been right-wing intellectuals of various stripes, the contemporary American conservative movement — of which the Republican party is now a wholly-owned subsidiary — is aggressively and proudly anti-intellectual. This means that trying to find a place for movement conservatives in the academy is like trying to find a place for vegan chefs in a steakhouse’s kitchen.

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