Over the winter, once the book is fully out there, I’ll be contemplating and drafting an article on anti-intellectualism for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Political Culture.* Taking this on was no small thing for me. Several years ago, after writing entries for three different history-oriented encyclopedias, I swore off the genre: too much work, too little rewards, deadlines annoyingly timed, over or under-active editors, encyclopedia never received, etc. But this project offers me space (3500 words) to expand my thinking on a topic that has grown near and dear to me.
The working title for my piece is simple: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” I’ve been pondering the subject as far back as graduate school when, like most readers here, I was introduced to Richard Hofstadter’s 1962 classic with the same title. I once wrote a long paper on the topic, in 2008, for the First Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference (for a panel with Andrew Hartman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James Levy). I am hoping that the current project catalyzes even more work on the subject (e.g. article for a Big Journal, a book, etc.).
Toward those larger ends I’ve created an extensive Zotero database on the subject (or “AI,” as I’ve taken to shorthand). Within that database I’ve split the topic into several tentative subgenres that are both transcendant and immediately historically conditioned:
– Against Intellectuals/Academia/Experts/Elites
– By Intellectuals! (yes, my folder title has the exclamation point)
– Common Sense
– Conspiracy Theories
– Crazy-Fringe Thought (that are not full-on conspiracy theories)
– Despair Over Reasonable Citizenry
– Economics: Rationality-Irrationality
– Education and Academic Freedom
– Emotions–Esp. Fear
– History-related (sort of a denial of historical facts category)
– In Popular Culture
– Partial Reason as AI
– Plain Speech
– Polemics Against AI
– Political Varieties
– Psychology of
– Regional Varieties
– Religious Varieties
– Theory and Definitions
There’s some obvious overlap here. The folders with the greatest numbers of citations are Theory, Political Varieties, Against Intellectuals, Anti/Unreason, and Historiography. I welcome your suggestions for other subgenres and themes.
One of the oldest, still-fascinating, and most controversial subgenres deals with the psychology, or perhaps sensibility, of anti-intellectualism. This began in Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Therein he dealt with resentment and suspicion in relation to the intellectual life. But psychological vein continued more explicitly, and in a pathologizing fashion, in his 1965 follow-up, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Other books by a variety of authors have dealt, directly and indirectly, with psychological and paranoid AI in conservatism (e.g. Daniel Bell’s edited collection, The Radical Right, 1962, 2000). That kind of analysis persists, especially in relation to far-right Tea Party politics after 2008.
If pseudo-psychology is a problematic strain of thought in those earlier studies, this more recent study brings questions of psychology, ideology, and politics back to the foreground. The link starts with summary news about one study, then puts it in conversation with another researcher’s work. Here are some excerpts:
[Dan] Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly. His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”
In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe. …
[Brendan] Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?
The answer, basically, is no. When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously. …
In Kahan’s experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table – containing the same numbers – about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime. Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people’s positions on gun control, they couldn’t do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream. The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.
I hate what this implies… I’m not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren’t looking so good for a reason. …
What these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we’ve already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.
Emotions and beliefs, then, most often trump reason—even when bigger, contradictory facts and reason itself stand tall against our positions. Anti-intellectualism is, of course, a part of the human condition. But so what? Men are not angels. We’ve always known this. Indeed, speaking to the political problem this poses, one of our American founders thought that government was the solution to the problem that men are not angels.** The founders thought a representative republic was the best correction for the problems of unreason, irrationalism, and anti-intellectualism. But that line of thought seems to assume that government can’t be profoundly manipulated by persistent, socially-embedded anti-intellectualism. If we are all hardwired to this kind of sensibility, then efforts at correction, if possible, must be more profound.
To that end, Hofstadter’s work on anti-intellectualism spent a lot of time on the issue of schooling. That points to a cultural (in the broadest sense) rather than political solution. A properly functioning education system would mitigate the possibility of a persistent, socially-embedded anti-intellectualism from debilitating any political system based on voting. Properly educated citizens are not angels, but they decrease the possibility of political failure based on devilish, demonic behavior. Our social ego might tame by our social id; reason might, at least, better oversee our passions.
The nice thing about the research of Kahan and Nyan is that it, to my mind, enables or rejuvenates a psychological theoretical component in anti-intellectualism. The old, seemingly linear formula on the topic looked like this: anti-intellectualism –> psychology –> pathology –> paranoia. In the end this discredited both psycho-historical explanations and the topic of anti-intellectualism (whether applied to right or left-leaning actors on the political spectrum). – TL
* It’s an ABC-CLIO project.
* James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Federalist No. 51. From here.