Dwight Eisenhower once defined an intellectual as "a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows." While Eisenhower was perfectly happy to have people mistake his lack of eloquence for a modest intelligence, he would never have gone so far as to proclaim himself proud to be dumb or uninformed.
Yet there are some who seem tempted to do just that. Last month, Sarah Palin added to her growing body of fascinating public utterances by pleading with Muslims to "refudiate" the Islamic center planned for near Ground Zero in New York (it turned out it wasn't the first time she had used the word). Eventually, the Weekly Standard, one of the chief organs of the intellectual right, began selling T-shirts and bumper stickers saying "Refudiate Obama" and "Refudiate socialism."
We probably shouldn't make too much of this -- they're just having a bit of fun, after all. But embracing Palin in all her nincompoopery must, in the words of the former Alaska governor herself, "stab hearts" -- at least some of them -- at a magazine that is supposed to have some sort of commitment to ideas. When you make a slip of the tongue (or the brain), you can say "oops," or you can celebrate your own ignorance. Because after all, wouldn't the later irritate people who value things like education and clear thinking? You know, liberals?
At a time when no one can seem to figure out how to fix the economy, it's easy to conclude that there's not much point in being smart. As Ronald Reagan used to say, complex problems may not have easy answers, but they do have simple answers. You don't need book learning to find them; you just need the right beliefs.
This is hardly a new story. In his classic 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, Richard Hofstadter argued that the American tradition of scorn for the intellect predated the Revolution and had three roots: religion, particularly the more enthusiastic forms of Protestantism; business, with its focus on practicality; and populism. It sounds a lot like the sources of Republican political success in contemporary America.
That populism, with its inevitable attendant anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, has well-educated conservative elites a bit uncertain, feeling no choice but to be carried along for the ride, even as they occasionally raise a gentle criticism or two. The Tea Party is defining the moment for conservatism, whether the magazine writers and think-tank fellows like it or not. Not that they can complain when conservatives of all stripes have been attacking the "elite" for decades. It was not too long ago that George W. Bush was lauded by well-dressed conservatives for his "moral clarity," by which they meant his admirable willingness to reduce the world to simple dichotomies: America good, terrorists bad, what else do you need to know? Anyone who suggested that understanding al-Qaeda might be of assistance in defeating it was derided as a squish who didn't "get it." No, we needed a man like Bush, a "decider" who famously thought not with his head but with his gut.
One must be careful to keep reminding people, however, that the elite at whom they need to be angry is not the economic elite. No, the elite scorned by the blue-collar poseurs is the cultural elite, the college professors and cosmopolitan urban dwellers, the know-it-alls who are insufficiently contemptuous of foreigners and insufficiently devoted to your religion. (This amounts to its own kind of snobbery; as Michael Kinsley wrote a few years ago, "It's the only kind of snobbery with any real power in America today: reverse snobbery.")
If Palin is the politician who defines the current moment for the right, the media figure of the moment is certainly Glenn Beck, who managed to get tens of thousands of his supporters to come to Washington on Saturday. While Palin tells her supporters that their problems come from smarty-pants urbanites, Beck pulls his down a rabbit hole of manic conspiracy theories, telling them that the path to true knowledge can be found only by forgetting everything anyone else tells them. Understanding will come not from deliberation but from revelation, he says. Watch my show, and I will reveal to you the hidden conspiracies to which others are blinded.
And for $9.95 a month, you can enroll in "Beck University," a series of online lectures from Beck-approved polemicists concerning the evils of government and the perfidy of progressives. It doesn't require any prerequisites, just a belief that actual universities are festering cauldrons of lies and liberal brainwashing, and a willingness to turn to Beck for all the education you'll ever want or need.
So it isn't inappropriate that these two are the closest thing the Tea Party movement, which lacks any real intellectual underpinning, has to leaders. And as the Tea Party's anger has been turned on Republicans in many primary races, the result is a cadre of candidates with little or no understanding of how government works, and no apparent desire to learn. Soon, some of them will be making our laws.
You could argue that as a society, we're smarter than we've ever been. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008, 29.4 percent of Americans over the age of 25 had a bachelor's degree or higher. Compare that to 1960, when only 7.7 percent of Americans over 25 had a college degree. The tech revolution, furthermore, turned nerds and geeks into heroes. Our age has been shaped by brilliant and quirky tech geniuses, from Microsoft's Bill Gates to Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Every day brings new advancements in science, technology, and our capacity to assemble, create, and use data.
Yet politics still seems so often ruled by the aggressively dumb, a fact that the confluence of forces that swept one thoughtful, educated man to the White House couldn't change. Experts and the highly educated can and do make plenty of mistakes, of course. But the anti-intellectual stance presumes that those with detailed knowledge of things like policy are morally inferior to those who would rather feel things than know things. The economy can rise and fall, elections can come and go, but that sentiment will always be with us.
When the Texas Board of Education was debating last year whether and how to undermine any acceptance of the demonic idea of evolution in their schools, board member Don McLeroy, a young-earth creationist, said passionately that when it comes to figuring out what knowledge to pass on to our young people, "somebody's got to stand up to experts!" Lots of people are standing up these days. On the other hand, McLeroy lost his next election. So maybe there's hope.