by Chidem Kurdas
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, a historian who died in 1970, is very much part of politics several decades after it was written. The past two years brought many charges of anti-intellectualism by left-liberals against people on the other side of the political divide. The latest in Hofstadter-inspired critiques is an attack on Tea Partiers by Will Bunch — The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.
The term anti-intellectualism does not just denote those who don’t care for intellectuals. Rather, Hofstadter presents it as an ideology, an “ism” that periodically besets American culture and deprives intellectuals of political power. This deprivation disappears under certain administrations. Thus regarding the late 19th and early 20th century he wrote that “In the Progressive era the estrangement between intellectuals and power … came rather abruptly to an end.”
Similarly in the New Deal: “Never had there been such complete harmony between the popular cause in politics and the dominant view of the intellectuals.” Unfortunately – from Hofstadter’s perspective – this harmony was disrupted by right-wing reaction against policies associated with intellectuals.
In fact many of those policies were disastrous, as Burton Folsom shows in New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America. But Hofstadter is not concerned with that. He simply takes it for granted that intellectuals’ influence on government is good for the public. It is clear that in this context “intellectual” means left-liberal policy thinker, not merely somebody who likes to read or write books or bat around ideas.
Tea Partiers give ample evidence that they read, in particular the US Constitution, but that is not the kind of book to save you from being assigned to the anti-intellectualist camp. Neither is reading F. A. Hayek. When the Texas Board of Education proposed to include Hayek in high school economics classes, at least one economist objected—click for Ilya Somin’s post on this.
What is the opposite of anti-intellectualism? For the sake of symmetry it might be called intellectualism—-the argument that intellectuals with the correct ideas should decide what to do to the rest of us. This is an ancient notion that goes back to Plato and the cult of philosopher-kings. Over the centuries many rulers subscribed to it. To prove his intellectual chops, Joseph Stalin wrote numerous articles with titles like “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” despite being so busy with mass murder.
In the American setting, intellectualism comes down to paternalism—in Hofstadter’s account, intellectuals and political power ideally combine to push massive government interventions as in the New Deal. Therefore anti-intellectualism is in effect anti-paternalism—-click for ThinkMarkets posts by Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman on paternalism.
But anti-paternalism is not a useful label to slime those who favor limited government, because it does not sound like a bad thing. Whereas anti-intellectualism is an effective smear, suggesting an unreasonable hatred of learning. Hence its popularity with left-wing critics.
Another currently popular notion that comes from Hofstadter is right-wing paranoia. If you oppose the intellectual-political cabal chipping away at your freedom and taking your money, well then you’re a paranoid anti-intellectualist. That great intellectual, Stalin, would know exactly what to do with you! And he’d have a long reading list to prove he’s correct. American paternalists haven’t managed to get to that level but they’ll repeat endlessly that you’re crazy and stupid.