By Patrick Metzger
We all want to feel safe. To know that we’re being protected, that the dangers we might face in society are being analyzed and guarded against by the right people for the job.
When it comes to how to prevent a nuclear attack, military strategists, game theorists, and political scientists ought to be on the case. When wildfires are raging, we’re lucky to have wildland fire scientists and climatologists working on short and long term solutions. When a new virus rears its ugly head, public health experts, virologists, and researchers at the forefront of computational systems biology are the ones who will guide us on how to save people’s lives.
But what happens when the expertise and intellect that these specialists have cultivated over a lifetime is ignored or even ridiculed? What happens when we build a wall between the life-saving information that they have to offer and the people who most need to access that information?
As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, we are living in a time of crisis. When we’re looking for solutions to massive, global challenges, science and evidence-based thinking are the best tools we have available to ensure the survival of our species.
But over the last several months, far-right Republican leaders like our current president, Mike Pence, Tom Cotton, and Louie Gohmert have repeatedly denied the science and amplified conspiracy theories around the coronavirus with tragic results. The current administration’s mismanaged response to this pandemic has so far led to over 190,000 deaths in the United States alone, more than the number of US soldiers who died in World War I.
How did we get here?
A major factor at play is anti-intellectualism.
As you can tell from my preamble, politics is going to play a role in this story, but I hope that we can separate my commentary about certain wealthy, powerful politicians from the lived reality of working class people who might happen to vote for those politicians.
My criticism is with people in power with major platforms who are demeaning scientists, journalists, and other experts. I have no quarrel here with everyday citizens who are just doing their best to keep a job, feed their families, and make a place for themselves in their community.
What is Anti-intellectualism?
The hive mind of Wikipedia has adeptly defined the word “intellectual”: as “a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of society.”
Those aspects of research and critical thinking have a strong relationship to a foundation of learning, and so educational institutions play a key role in a culture that values intellectuals.
The historian Richard Hofstadter described anti-intellectualism as a, “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”
This is a topic very important to me. I’ve been privileged to receive a lot of education in my life, and I’m grateful for all the amazing teachers I’ve had.
So it’s particularly frustrating to see that we live in a time with so many brilliant, well-informed experts in a vast array of fields, and yet time and again these experts are ignored and belittled just for telling difficult truths
It’s bad enough that some people don’t want to know the truth. That we all live in our own information bubbles, and technology and society support and encourage that isolation.
It’s bad enough that many people have a strong bias against intellectuals in this country.
Worse: We are in the middle of a decades-long systematic effort to antagonize intellectuals. And a lot of that effort has been led by prominent figures in the Republican Party.
The Republican Strategy to Demonize Intellectuals
Ronald Reagan, as part of his 1980 presidential campaign, called for the total elimination of the Department of Education just a few years after Jimmy Carter created it. Time and again, Republicans have slashed education budgets and increased Defense Department spending.
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all ridiculed intellectuals (while constantly relying on their advice in pivotal moments). At a meeting of the Republican party in 1958, Eisenhower derided “wise-cracking so-called intellectuals” characterizing them as “a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.”
Nixon’s prejudice was closely linked to a thinly veiled anti-semitism. The Watergate scandal revealed many internal discussions where he asked in a terrified manner whether someone was Jewish. And wary of “all these Harvard people,” he made statements to his staff like, “Remember that any intellectual is tempted to put himself above the law.”
In a 1964 speech, Reagan distanced himself from the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol.”
These presidents also adopted a linguistic style that concealed their college education and wealthy social status. Nixon asked his speechwriters to help him use “truck drivers’ language.” Reagan wanted “muscular workday prose”.
Then, of course, there’s George W. Bush, who admitted to intentionally adopting an image that masked his high school years in Massachusetts and his university education at Yale and Harvard Business School. After losing a race for Congress in Texas in 1978, he recalled how Kent Hance, “gave me a lesson on country-boy politics,” a style which Bush described as “funny and belittling.”
An Attempt to Manufacture “The Truth”
Jumping to the present, where has this approach taken us? On a daily basis we’re witnessing the disastrous effects of neglecting the warnings of scientists. In addition to a global pandemic, we’re living through a time of cataclysmic human-caused climate change, most evident in the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. 78% of Americans now believe in climate change, including 64% of Republicans, but still 60% of Republican congress members deny climate change.
Why? If we follow the money, it’s easy to draw the connection to campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies. Democrats are not guiltless in this regard: since 2010, they’ve received $41.7M from the Oil & Gas industry. But Republicans went the extra mile, raking in $263.7M in contributions from dirty energy since 2010, more than 6 times the Democrats. It benefits these Republicans financially to spread misinformation on climate change, perpetuating ignorance for their own personal gain.
The ongoing trend of populism denigrates journalists, professors, and free-thinking individuals because they are a threat to an ideology that wants to exist beyond facts. “Alternative facts” are better known as propaganda. As Hannah Arendt articulated, authoritarians use propaganda to take advantage of an “incomprehensible world” and people’s susceptibility to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” Authoritarian leaders abuse their power to craft an ideology that benefits them. They invent a simple story that people want to believe, whether or not it’s true.
The GOP senators and congresspeople who deny climate change and spread misinformation are primarily interested in the financial gains they can reap from wealthy donors, rather than the truth of how they might be harming the planet, the broader economy, or the majority of this country’s people.
Now, I don’t mean to say that everyone who has ever voted Republican is trying to deny facts, or that there are no compassionate, intelligent Republicans. There’s a lot of shaming of Republican voters, and I’m not interested in participating in that. On the contrary, I have conservative friends and family members who are thoughtful and caring, many of whom are involved in their communities and contribute to causes that genuinely help people.
But the party direction in recent decades is not reflective of classical free market conservatism, but rather of runaway crony capitalism that supports a rigged system. The major power brokers of the GOP have for quite some time been geared toward protecting millionaires and billionaires while extracting wealth from the working class. A great deal of the mechanism for perpetuating poverty has its roots in limiting access to quality education, and the rhetoric that enables this starts by mocking science and expertise.
The Long-lasting Influence of Anti-Intellectualism
Unfortunately, this anti-intellectual approach seems to be working. While Americans nationwide have supported federal science funding for decades (with an overall 83% support in 2018), the details get more nuanced when we break perceptions down by political affiliation.
Half a century ago, in 1974, 48% of Republican citizens had “a great deal of trust” in the scientific community. At that time, Republicans trusted scientists more than Democrats did. As of 2018, however, only 39% of Republicans feel that way. And only 43% of Republicans think scientists should be involved in policy decisions, compared with 73% of Democrats.
A similar effect can be observed in relation to trust in the press. In 1973, only 16% of Republicans had “hardly any” trust in the press. As of 2018, 65% of Republicans have hardly any trust in the press.
When it comes to higher education, 59% of Republicans surveyed last year said that “colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.” Not only that but when they were surveyed in 2015—4 years earlier—only a third of Republicans felt that way. It was in 2017, after the election of our current president, that it flipped to 58% being wary of a college education.
So most Republicans right now don’t trust the intentions of scientists, don’t trust the press, and think that college is a bad influence. Meanwhile, of the Americans who didn’t go to college, 48% of them believe the conspiracy theory that powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak (which, by the way, is not true, as expert researchers have confirmed after careful analysis of the virus).
The strategy is clear, Republican leaders know that if they can keep people under-educated and misinformed, they’re easier to manipulate. Getting elected can stay a game of emotions, rather than one of logic and reason. Winning by playing to people’s gut is just easier.
Since the Dixiecrats parted ways with the Democrats in the 1940s, race-based fears and anti-immigrant rhetoric have played a much bigger role in Republican campaigns than, say, the nuances of infrastructure plans.
In the political ads and commentary of recent years, a reliance on populism has enabled racism to masquerade as folksy or quaint instead of horrific and despicable. If there’s no standard set for informed discourse, it’s easier for people to get away with dehumanizing not only black people, indigenous people, and people of color, but also women, queer folks, and anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow type.
That racist rhetoric is unfortunately effective amongst a certain voting bloc, but it only gets deployed so strategically because immigrants and people of color don’t tend to vote Republican in large numbers. Paired with the ongoing voter suppression that many Republican representatives continue to engage in on a regular basis, we’re witnessing an organized opposition campaign against people who are a threat to their power.
Where Are the Republican Intellectuals?
Now we find ourselves in a time when there are hardly any prominent conservatives in the public eye who could be considered intellectuals.
The closest thing we have is Jordan Peterson. And let’s just say he’s no William F. Buckley—who, of course, had his own issues.
Peterson is creating his own insular online university, while calling accredited universities “indoctrination cults.” He raised the idea of listing “Marxist-influenced” college courses on his website so that people could boycott them. He luckily abandoned that idea.
But no true intellectual would take such a virulent stance against freedom of thought. No intellectual would advocate for censoring educational courses in this way, or suggest that the only real education is at a university run by himself.
He’s a conman.
Peterson is predominantly putting forth—not a broad framework for thinking about the world—but a singular belief system, which is patriarchal, myopic, and, at its core, very selfish.
Which has some parallels to the GOP strategy since the 1960s. It’s built around optimizing outcomes for the few. The only dream that poor people can have in this system is to someday grab their bootstraps and scramble up to become one of those few wealthy people at the top. Which is, of course, a myth. Nearly all the time, social mobility just doesn’t happen.
Meanwhile, “No new taxes” is about consolidating and retaining wealth among the business owners who already have it. “School choice” is a framework for slowly privatizing education, which leaves lower income people with fewer options. “Law and order” is a racist dog-whistle that has enabled conservatives for decades to jail black people for petty crimes and profit off their incarceration.
Jordan Peterson is just the next in a long line of white dudes telling other white dudes some basic platitudes like “clean your room” so that they feel empowered. His debate strategy is largely built around making bold, pseudoscientific claims and then interrupting anyone who disagrees with him.
All in all, it’s an ideology of arrogance. Jordan Peterson is confident that he’s right, and if you want to be right too, you should be disagreeable and make brash, unfounded statements like he does.
That’s not intellectualism, it’s a factory model for making people overconfident and unreflective. Meanwhile, he’s bringing together and championing a whole problematic culture of men’s rights activists who have a misguided sense that they’re disenfranchised because of movements that are just trying to make the world safer for women.
Speaking of which, Ben Shapiro is your other main option for a conservative intellectual. Here’s another guy who uses long words to say nothing at all. But he literally doesn’t know that what Megan Thee Stallion is referencing in her song “Wet Ass Pussy” is a healthy sexual response. So I wouldn’t exactly call him well-informed.
Beyond that, you’ve got pundits like Charlie Kirk or Tucker Carlson whose logical fallacies are so blatant that it’s laughable. They’re so confident that they’re speaking to an audience that already agrees with them that they get sloppy. Mostly they take quotes out of context, mix in a little racism, and then go for the ad hominem attacks.
And few could argue that the typical Fox News anchor is acting in an intellectual capacity.
These entertainers just don’t hold weight when compared with conservative intellectuals of the past like Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, or the aforementioned William F. Buckley.
I may not agree with the conclusions of these thinkers, but they had a depth to their analysis, often founded on methodical research. They weren’t simply trying to make incendiary claims for the sake of ratings and ad dollars like so many do now.
Intellectualism Lives On Among Independent Creators
These days we have so few models for what an intellectual dialogue looks like.
You definitely can’t look to the presidential debates. You can’t look to most news networks, even on the left. That’s all become a video production team that’s trying to make entertaining movies with drama and beginnings, middles, ends, and heroes and villains. That’s not the same as a thoughtful conversation between free-thinking individuals about the important issues of the day.
Sometimes, however, you do get that kind of creative thinking happening with independent creators.
Emmanuel Acho’s Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man is a pretty brilliant series.
Dylan Marran’s Conversations with People Who Hate Me fosters a dialogue between vastly divergent viewpoints.
And Ezra Klein is a master interviewer, always facilitating deep and meaningful conversations on The Ezra Klein Show.
Creating the World We Want
These independent creators are doing incredible work to nurture the curiosity and analytical thinking of their audiences. But they are unfortunately the exceptions, not the rule. Often, conversations online or in the media become just one person articulating their idea, then somebody else retorting with a completely different idea, then seeing how those perspectives bang against each other—rather than how they weave in and out of each other, playing in the middle ground between different perspectives.
To me that middle ground is one of the most inspiring things about higher education or the pursuit of knowledge or lifelong learning, or any different name you might give to finding an intellectual path.
Really it’s about curiosity—being curious about the world, exploring and interrogating everything around you, and wanting to know what’s really happening. What is the truth? How are things actually structured in reality?
That, to me, is intellectualism. It’s a search for knowledge, a search for answers. It’s fundamentally a seeking. And you never get to a point where you feel like you’ve found “The Answer,” you’re always looking for the next one.
Every answer opens a new question, and you walk through that door to see what you can find.
I would love to see more thoughtful dialogue, and I hope you’ll join me in trying to encourage that online and in person, with strangers, with our friends, with our families.
We need to be patient with each other. We need to pause and take a breath before sharing incendiary news. Let’s read books. Let’s talk about big ideas. And let’s do all that with empathy and compassion for different points of view.
I’ve made some points in this article that may be controversial to some people, but I hope they’re taken in good faith—as grounded in research and open to further counterpoints.
Conversation that’s rooted in curiosity and mutual respect has the potential to change our world. I’d love to hear your perspective and start a conversation.
Take care of yourself, take care of each other, and stay curious.