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American Anti-Intellectualism is as Old as America


There is a tendency I’ve seen to assume that the current anti-intellectual trends in American politics are new, or especially bad today in ways they weren’t in the past. The reality of the situation is, as usual, far more complex.

In 1963, an American historian named Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which traced the history of anti-intellectual movements in the US. Per the Columbia Journalism Review, in a recent retrospective, Hofstadter described intellectualism like so:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

Anti-intellectualism, on the other hand:

Anti-intellectualism . . . is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

In other words, the key difference between an intellectual and an anti-intellectual is one’s sense of certitude. An intellectual understands both the limits and ever-evolving nature of human knowledge, while an anti-intellectual is comfortably certain in what they believe they know. Intellectuals, understanding the experience and belief gaps between individuals, favor compromise, but opponents are ideologically absolute and will accept only the terms they demand.

This trend is hardly new–according to Hofstadter, it is woven into the very fabric of our culture, an intractable component of our evangelical Protestant heritage. The central conflict is one of intellectualism vs. democracy. Either academic elites–the best minds in their respective fields–are permitted to rule on the basis of their expertise, or the people are permitted to choose whatever kind of representation they want, regardless of qualifications. But Hofstadter didn’t see this as a bad thing. Rather, he saw it as an essential component of the American system.

Because Hofstadter does confront the conflict candidly, he winds up in a very small category. It’s interesting to think of him in contrast to, for example, Walter Lippmann, who wrestled with the same problem for years and wound up becoming more and more unsympathetic to democracy. Hofstadter’s position is far more morally attractive, because it acknowledges the appeal of both sides and proposes a continual struggle between them, rather than the establishment of an American version of Plato’s _Republic_. That has the advantages of descriptive accuracy, and of realism. Hofstadter’s lesson is that those who oppose anti-intellectualism should conceive of their lives as a struggle that will never conclude in victory but that also need not ever end in total defeat.

And a broader point that deserves particular notice:

History is an essential corrective to the impulse to see the controversies of the present as uniquely vexing.

The more I learn about history, the more obvious this becomes. Although the trappings of our modern way of life are different, people aren’t. The humans that lived hundreds or thousands of years ago shared many of the same basic drives and desires. What has changed most profoundly, in my opinion, is the focus on individual rights and self-determination. Our lives are our own in ways they weren’t in centuries past. That is indisputably a good thing–basic dignity and agency are the fundamental rights of all people. But allowing people to participate in government, from grassroots activism to voting to running for office to actually creating and enforcing policy, means accepting circumstances that are not what intellectuals might consider optimal (or even just better than status quo). This is not meant as an excuse or apology for anti-intellectualism, which is indeed a dangerous force that needs to be pushed back, but an acknowledgment that, given its longevity and influence, hoping for its eventual eradication is more likely wishful thinking than a realistic goal.

Additionally, Hofstadter described “experts” as individuals with intellectual pretensions but essentially the same fallible self-assurance as anti-intellectuals. Experts are everywhere, but genuine intellectuals are not, and it is easy to confuse the two. CRJ draws clear distinctions between all three categories:

Anti-intellectualism has always been with us, and always will be; that isn’t shameful, because it’s an aspect of our being a democracy. Conversely, intellectualism should be inherently uncomfortable, not triumphant. Experts, Hofstadter reminds us, have been important since early in the 20th century, but to point out that our complex society increasingly needs people who are intelligent and have formal technical education to staff government and business is not the same thing as saying that the United States has a rich intellectual life. Experts try to dwell in the realm of rigorously derived knowledge and facts. Intellectuals dwell in the much more difficult realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification, and where contention, contradiction, and uncertainty are inescapable. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life. If you ever begin to think of American life as a struggle between the superior, enlightened few and the mass of yobs, pick up _Anti-Intellectualism in American Life_. It ought to cure you.

If nothing else, delving into the subject has made me more comfortable with my discomfort, if that makes any sense at all. The more you know, the less you know for sure. All decisions, large and small, important and less important, are made with imperfect information–the only question is whether you will deceive yourself into believing you have all the information, or instead accept that you can only work to make the best decision possible based on the information at hand, and do what you can to account (and prepare) for the potential consequences.

This includes the consequences of decisions made by those who are so certain of themselves. We will have to live with those, too, whether we like it or not.