We are all shocked, shocked I say, at the rising wave of anti-intellectualism threatening our plans and institutions. The airwaves are packed with blustering regressives, the polls are stacked with Trumpsters. Books like American Idiot and The Dumbest Generation grace our bookshelves. We huddle in cafes lamenting the fall of the American empire, afraid we’ll be first against the wall.
Except anti-intellectualism has always been part of society. Ask Galileo or Socrates. Here’s a snippet via Wikipedia:
“Anti-intellectualism in American Life is a book by Richard Hofstadter published in 1963 that won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In this book, Hofstadter set out to trace the social movements that altered the role of intellect in American society. In so doing, he explored questions regarding the purpose of education and whether the democratization of education altered that purpose and reshaped its form. In considering the historic tension between access to education and excellence in education, Hofstadter argued that both anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were consequences, in part, of the democratization of knowledge. Moreover, he saw these themes as historically embedded in America’s national fabric, an outcome of its colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage. Anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of American cultural heritage, not necessarily of democracy.”If anti-intellectualism is inescapable, how should that affect our theories of governance?
On a personal level, a certain idealism should be shed. Facts and logical conclusions are useful in the workplace, but in political discourse it’s apparent what sounds best trumps what makes the most objective sense. You’re never going to convince your uncle over Thanksgiving dessert that the poor aren’t lazy, that Muslims aren’t terrorist, that Wall Street serves a real purpose, that their favorite populist candidate’s platform doesn’t really add up.
Successful politicians accept this. Like pastors who’ve lost faith in the Almighty but still love their congregation, they go through the motions of supporting popular causes, but at the end of the day govern with the full breadth of their experience. We call this disjoint “slimy” but it’s apparently necessary.
As much as we hate the idea of an insular monolithic meritocracy, the country couldn’t survive being run by wild-eyed idealists either. Sometimes we need our leaders to say one thing and do something slightly different; support world peace on the platform but take necessary actions as Commander In Chief that we can’t stomach ourselves, assuming we were even paying attention to that region of the world. Lower taxes on citizens and raise them on corporations, but don’t break the economy. Give China a stern talking-to and crank up American wages, but don’t raise prices on the shelf at Walmart.
In a utopian logical world, campaign bait and switch wouldn’t be as necessary. Citizens would weigh in on the issues they have expertise in, and trust the judgment of others in areas they don’t. Representatives could become simply implementors of the public will, with electronic direct democracy cranking out the policy.
But history tells us we need a buffer layer between the citizenry and policy making, especially in foreign affairs. Nations that listen to their misinformed, reactionary majorities too closely wind up going to war too soon, too early, or against the wrong enemy. Giving the people control of the purse strings results in the treasury being voted into their hands. And we certainly wouldn’t want a random year’s popular vote shredding our Constitutional protections. In many ways, the government and its bureaucracy protects us from ourselves.
This isn’t to say politicians needn’t be honest. Just that certain of their promises and subsequent lack of results can be excused. Most voters don’t really understand the issues, and the ones they do, they usually only have half the story, unaware of their own filter bubbles and confirmation bias. The world is much more complicated than clickbait web sites ever acknowledge.
Rarely do we go back to the facts to reconsider our own positions on immigration, welfare queens, guns, trade, or other important issues. Anti-intellectualism and an unquestioning loyalty to our own preconceptions still weave their way through all corners of the political spectrum, from immigrant haters to GMO haters to Federal Reserve haters.
Don’t believe everything you think.
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