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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Anti-Intellectualism on the Right

Bruce Bartlett last year at TNR:
Although Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan also adopted anti-intellectualism as a political strategy, for them it was just a cynical way to cater to widespread distrust of expertise and learning as a brand of elitism. As president, they routinely deferred to experts, scientists, and other intellectuals in developing and implementing their policies. Nixon famously reached out to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a professor of government at Harvard and well-known Democrat, to work for him in the White House. According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, he used the columnist George Will, who studied at Oxford and holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton, as a sort of emissary to the intellectual community. And George W. Bush had as his vice president Dick Cheney, a man who had pursued a doctorate in political science at the University of Wisconsin, where his wife, Lynne, got a Ph.D. in British literature.
The problem is that adopting faux populism and anti-intellectualism for purely political purposes eventually leads practitioners to take their own rhetoric literally and denigrate expertise as something to be distrusted per se. This is why the great conservative philosopher Russell Kirk rejected populist rhetoric as a path for conservative victory, even though the populist message might overlap with the conservative program to some extent. As he explained in a 1988 lecture at the Heritage Foundation:
Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what [sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger] call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.
In a forthcoming article in Public Opinion Quarterly, political scientist Eric Merkley explains how populism and anti-intellectualism lend themselves naturally to the rejection of scientific expertise. As Republicans have tied themselves to the pseudo-populist Tea Party movement over the last decade, as well as to evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians, their trust in scientific expertise has fallen. According to a 2019 article in Public Opinion Quarterly, in 1973 more Republicans had a great deal of trust in scientists than did Democrats (41 percent of the former, 35 percent of the latter). But by 2016, those percentages had reversed. The latest data from Pew show that 43 percent of Democrats have a great deal confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public, while only 27 percent of Republicans do.