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American Idiot

Rethinking Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

“On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the Government.” We may fairly assume that Alexis de Tocqueville would be even more surprised if he were to visit today. For while Tocqueville conducted his classic study of American democracy during the time of Jacksonian populism, the early nineteenth-century French observer would have to wait until 2017 to see the first leader enter the White House without any prior government or military experience.

The 45th President has made no secret of his disdain for learning and specialized knowledge, sneering at a campaign rally last year, “You know, I’ve always wanted to say this — I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do — all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert –’ The experts are terrible!” Such comments provide ample fodder for Tom Nichols’ topical and engaging new book, The Death of Expertise (2017). For Nichols, the anti-intellectual strain in the U.S. has transmuted into arrogant contempt for intellectual authority due to major shifts in education, journalism, and our media and political environment. Taken together, Nichols claims, these shifts have driven American democracy to the brink of authoritarian populism.

In addressing the depreciation of established knowledge in the U.S., The Death of Expertise joins a tradition of writings that extends back to Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963). Yet whereas Hofstadter emphasized the “cyclical fluctuations” of anti-intellectualism that have rippled across all spheres of American society for centuries, Nichols views Trump’s election to the highest position of national power as part of an unprecedented surge of philistinism. Does the Trump presidency represent a characteristic wave of anti-intellectualism during a period of complex and bewildering global developments, or is our democratic experiment indeed facing an existential menace? To approach this question, it is worth revisiting Hofstadter’s study and reevaluating his argument in light of the structural transformations and political movements of recent decades.

Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life

Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life emerged in response to the distressing sociopolitical conditions of the 1950s, when the term “anti-intellectualism” first gained widespread currency. During that decade, the erudite and eloquent Adlai Stevenson suffered two decisive presidential losses to Army general Dwight D. Eisenhower, and business interests henceforth superseded New Deal policies. Furthermore, amidst the Second Red Scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy targeted intellectuals, and the launch of Sputnik sparked a national conversation on the deficiencies of American education. Against this backdrop, Hofstadter sought to historicize and temper apocalyptic narratives: “Those who have suddenly become aware of it often assume that anti-intellectualism is a new force in this or that area of life, and that, being a product of recent conditions, it may be expected to grow to overwhelming proportions” (6). By the time Hofstadter completed his book, John F. Kennedy had indeed succeeded Eisenhower, indicating that — then as now — the pendulum swung between oafish, inarticulate Republicans and more literate and sophisticated Democrats in national office.

Defining anti-intellectualism as “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” (7), Hofstadter demonstrated that it reaches deep into American history, extending across the domains of religion, politics, business, and education. Beginning in the 1720s, the Great Awakening swept across colonial America, encompassing Christian revivalist and evangelical movements that rejected clerical learning and cerebral, doctrinal worship in favor of ecstatic emotion, inner spiritual conviction, and mass conversion. And though founded and first led by members of the patrician elite, the nation sidelined its intellectuals by the early nineteenth century, giving way to a Jacksonian popular democracy that valorized coarseness and common sense over cultivation and formal training. This cult of character and direct, practical experience extended to the realm of business, where the uneducated, self-made man became a shared ideal. Similarly egalitarian in ideology, American public education was perennially bemoaned for its makeshift conditions, poor regard and remuneration for teachers, and pedagogical appeal to the lowest common denominator.

In Hofstadter’s view, the forces of anti-intellectualism gained new valences in reaction to the massive changes of the twentieth century. Finding itself on the defensive, the religious right grew militantly fundamentalist, initiating now-familiar culture wars over issues such as evolution (most famously around the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925). In the realm of government affairs, experts became increasingly indispensable during the New Deal era and the Second World War, leading to the aforementioned backlash under the Eisenhower–Nixon administration and McCarthyism. Remarking on these developments, Hofstadter argued that the anti-intellectualism of midcentury America marked a frustrated response to the incontrovertible salience and utility of expertise: “Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much” (34). In a period of greater complexity and geopolitical involvement, the ordinary citizen faced a heightened sense of disorientation and helplessness. The expert thus became suspicious to those seeking clear culprits and simple, concrete remedies for the ruptures and predicaments of modernity.

Nichols’ The Death of Expertise

The past decade has seen a return to the topic of anti-intellectualism, prompted by digital technologies, national responses to 9/11, and a series of Republicans — from George W. Bush through Sarah Palin to Donald Trump — who have managed to surpass one another in doltish incoherence. Most prominent among the recent accounts are Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason (2007), Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2008), Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (2008), Charles Pierce’s Idiot America (2009), and David Niose’s Fighting Back the Right (2014). Though varying in their emphases and political commitments, the books advance loosely comparable arguments: despite rendering knowledge widely accessible and promising to reinvigorate the public sphere, new media have spread misinformation, facilitated mean-spirited exchange, and diminished a younger generation’s literacy, attention span, and general understanding of geography, history, and politics. Meanwhile, social and religious extremists have encouraged an aversion to critical thinking and reasoned debate, obfuscating the boundaries between fact and unfounded opinion, between scientific consensus and blind, dogmatic faith.

The latest in this cluster of books is The Death of Expertise, based on an article that Nichols published in The Federalist in 2014. A professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, former political adviser, and “Never Trump” conservative, Nichols argues that the country has shifted from healthy skepticism of accepted knowledge to a proud, self-satisfied ignorance and active hostility to the very idea of expertise. Across American society, Nichols claims, intellectual authority is resented, resisted, and disregarded, with every opinion ostensibly holding equal weight. This leveling of viewpoints has been accelerated by digital technologies and platforms, which have further lowered the barriers to participation, opening the floodgates for those without proper education and professional credentials: “I fear we are witnessing […] a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all” (2017, 3). In the absence of these crucial social distinctions, public discourse has become degraded by unquestioned cognitive biases and a dearth of informed, evidence-based argumentation.

Nichols cogently outlines the denigration of expertise in three key areas of American life. Bowing to mass-market pressures, institutions of higher education have lowered their standards, providing affirmative “safe spaces” rather than necessarily uncomfortable intellectual challenges. No longer a time of disciplined learning and personal growth, college has become “a consumer-oriented experience in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right” (71). Consumer rankings and ratings are also ubiquitous in cyberspace, where every buyer is now a critic and opinion maker on websites like Amazon and Yelp. Drowning out expert perspectives, the Internet offers quick facts and views without the guarantee of accuracy, consistency, or disinterested, non-partisan oversight. Finally, contemporary journalism — whether talk radio, cable television, or digital sources — has adopted an open-ended and participatory format that caters to customer interests, blends news with punditry and entertainment, and perpetuates both ideological segregation and distrust in government, media, and other democratic institutions.

Cyclical Fluctuations

Among the problems faced by Nichols and other recent commentators is how to establish the sudden urgency of a phenomenon that Hofstadter famously characterized in terms of “cyclical fluctuations.” On what basis can one contend that American anti-intellectualism has become more pervasive over the past half-century and is now, in Susan Jacoby’s words, “less a cycle than a flood”? Positing a qualitative shift, these texts often make recourse to lapsarian, technological-determinist arguments, attributing the decline of critical intelligence in large measure to infotainment, video, and digital culture. Such claims ironically reactivate familiar tropes in the history of media, issuing cultural-pessimistic diagnoses of mass manipulation and stupefaction that can be traced back to previous historical junctures, when older technologies (e.g., cinema, radio, television) were likewise new. Insofar as technology alters our relationship to knowledge, the process is highly ambivalent, as Walter Benjamin argued in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936); while mass media open novel possibilities for mastery and wide-scale participation, the diffusion and democratization of expertise can facilitate popular skepticism and even demagogic persuasion.

Anti-intellectualism in American Life also reminds us that the anti-rationalism of today’s cultural conservatives and religious fundamentalists finds ample precedent in the nation’s past. Hofstadter situates the aforementioned anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s in the context of a Protestant “revolt against modernity” that included the reborn Ku Klux Klan, support for Prohibition, and the successful campaign against Catholic statesman Al Smith, the Democratic candidate in the 1928 presidential race. This radicalism persisted into subsequent decades, Hofstadter notes, as right-wing extremists found new supporters among those concerned by the federal income tax, New Deal reforms, communism, and racial desegregation. For all of its blatant contradictions and ideological fissures, the Trump/Pence regime is largely continuous with the American Right, especially insofar as it has mobilized nostalgia and fearful paranoia, identified easy scapegoats, and propagated an illiberal agenda (e.g., anti-immigrant nativism, militant nationalism, economic and foreign policy isolationism) in a period of financial recession and of destabilizing, confounding development across the globe.

Finally, Hofstadter’s book indicates that just as Trump’s lowbrow vulgarity and populist distrust of experts extend as far back as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison (with his “Log Cabin” campaign of 1840), the current administration’s lack of prior government experience and specialized policy knowledge is also not without precursor. In an opening chapter on “Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time,” Hofstadter recounts the 1957 congressional hearing of businessman Maxwell H. Gluck, a Republican donor who was appointed Ambassador to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) without any background in politics or diplomacy:

Senator J. William Fulbright: What are the problems in Ceylon you think you can deal with?

Gluck: One of the problems are the people there. I believe I can — I think I can establish, unless we — again, unless I run into something that I have not run into before—a good relationship and good feeling toward the United States…

Fulbright: Do you know our Ambassador to India?

Gluck: I know John Sherman Cooper, the previous Ambassador.

Fulbright: Do you know who the Prime Minister of India is?

Gluck: Yes, but I can’t pronounce his name.

Fulbright: Do you know who the Prime Minister of Ceylon is?

Gluck: His name is unfamiliar now, I cannot call it off. (10 — 11)

The questioning of Eisenhower’s appointee was just as ignominious, in sum, as the recent confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, another ultra-rich contributor to the Republicans whose nomination was indisputable evidence of cronyism and plutocracy.

Neoliberal Rationality

Far from anomalous in our political history, Trump represents a distinctly American brand of unbridled, plain-dealing capitalism and contempt for intellectual reflection, having campaigned on the basis of his business abilities, common sense, and self-made personal successes — all of which are no less dubious or even counterfactual, of course, than the longstanding rags-to-riches myth that continues to exert a powerful influence on the nation’s imagination. At the same time, his presidency marks the culmination of economic trends of recent decades, in particular the deregulation of business and industry, restrictions on taxes and unions, extreme concentrations of wealth and poverty, and the broad-scale dissemination of market values into all realms of society, not least the federal government. Using the White House as a platform for his private business interests and applying corporate rationale to political life, Trump arguably signals the triumph of trends in global neoliberalism, even as they assume the disingenuous guise of economic nationalism and anti-establishment populism.

Noting the ubiquity of the business paradigm in American culture, Hofstadter wrote, “Business not only appealed to vigorous and ambitious men but set the dominant standards for the rest of society, so that members of the professions — law, medicine, schoolteaching, even the ministry — aped businessmen and adapted the standards of their own crafts to those of business” (50). The hegemony of business logic has significantly expanded over the past decades, as Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos (2015); neoliberal rationality has subjected all spheres of human existence to economic metrics, such that even non-monetized domains of action are now framed and measured according to a market model. Privatizing public goods and thinking only in terms of capital enhancement, neoliberalism has undermined the necessary conditions of democratic citizenship, leading to a situation in which politics is “peculiarly unappealing and toxic — full of ranting and posturing, emptied of intellectual seriousness, pandering to an uneducated and manipulable electorate and a celebrity-and-scandal-hungry corporate media” (2015, 39).

Insofar as Brown contends that “smugness in ignorance” has supplanted a Socratic sense of humility (189), she shares Nichols’ view of contemporary American political discourse. Yet whereas Brown stresses the ominous threat posed to democracy by neoliberal capitalism, Nichols sees the nation’s fate hinging on individual action: “There is plenty of blame to go around for the parlous state of the role of expertise in American life […]. Experts themselves, as well as educators, journalists, corporate entertainment media, and others have all played their part. In the end, however, there is only one group of people who must bear the ultimate responsibility for this current state of affairs, and only they can change any of it: the citizens” (215). While this behaviorist approach prompts readers to contemplate what practices are within their immediate control, it remains on the level of cultural symptoms or epiphenomena, disregarding pathologies or underlying forces. Missing from Nichols’ work, in other words, is a sustained consideration of the structural bases of informed citizenship and democratic participation. 

The New Left

Briefly part of the Communist Party as a graduate student in the late 1930s, Hofstadter shifted from leftism to mainstream liberalism by midcentury. In The American Political Tradition (1948), Hofstadter rejected Charles A. Beard’s progressive, conflict-based approach to history, instead emphasizing stability and basic ideological unity throughout the American past — tenets that became associated with the “consensus” school. A distinguished professor at Columbia University and frequent contributor to general interest magazines such as Harper’s, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books, Hofstadter was venerated as a leading public intellectual and representative of the liberal establishment. Not unlike Theodor W. Adorno, however, he would fall out of favor among members of the younger generation for his perceived elitism, defense of intellectual autonomy, and critical distance from the student radicalism of the 1960s. In later decades, Mark Fenster, Michael Kazin, Christopher Lasch, Charles Postel, and other scholars would also fault the U.S. historian for disparaging populist political movements, especially the agrarian People’s Party from the “age of reform.”

Emerging in the 1960s amidst the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and protests against American foreign interventions, New Left history restored focus to struggles over power and called attention to groups that had been marginalized in American society and politics. Written on the cusp of these cultural and historiographical shifts, Anti-intellectualism in American Life largely neglected to deploy race and gender as categories of historical analysis. Despite its blind spots, Hofstadter’s book indicated that intellectualism had been associated with femininity and gender inversion throughout the American past: whereas business and politics were viewed as a “hard, masculine sphere […] the realm of reality and of dirty dealings,” genteel thinkers and reformers had been deemed “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive” (186, 190, 19). These tropes continued to shape the 2016 presidential race, where the businessman-cum-politician defended his chauvinistic “locker-room talk” and misogynistically cast his skilled opponent as a “nasty woman” whose historic candidacy posed a treacherous threat to the social order.

In a troubling passage from the Introduction to The Death of Expertise, Nichols reflects on the legacy of the reforms associated with New Left political movements of the 1960s:

Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans in general but also between uneducated citizens and elite experts in particular. A wider circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of experts and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other. And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else. (7)

Filled with ambivalence, Nichols thus recognizes the crucial significance of expanding access to education and widening the parameters of participation in the American public sphere, even as he exasperatingly links advances in sociopolitical equality with a situation of epistemological relativism, such that expert knowledge is no longer revered. Identifying the Vietnam War and Watergate as key causes of a declining trust in political elites and American institutions, Nichols fails to mention the longstanding abuses of expert truth-claims (e.g., scientific racism and sexism) vis-à-vis oppressed groups as well as subsequent efforts to challenge, redefine, and broaden the figure of the expert, who was historically assumed to be both white and male. (In a later discussion of identity politics, Nichols reduces campus activism to evidence of an entitled, self-righteous disdain for expertise, whereby “students instruct their professors” [82].) Finally, in citing “increased social mobility” (7), Nichols elides the conservative measures of recent decades that have restricted and even reversed democratizing reforms, attacking the diversified middle class and contributing to our present situation of economic polarization and intensified social inequality. 

Educational Reforms

Seeking to counter the Right’s effective mobilization of populist rhetoric under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Anglo-American academics became invested in anti-elitism as an intellectual program by the late twentieth century. Breaking with the literary canon and pushing academic scholarship beyond its disciplinary parameters, cultural studies affirmed popular tastes and pleasures, serving as a rebuke to cultural hierarchies and hegemonic systems of knowledge. Led by the work of Stuart Hall and others from the Birmingham School and developed in the U.S. by Andrew Ross’s No Respect (1989) and Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler’s Cultural Studies (1992), this academic reform movement embraced a “popular politics” and institutionalized New Left values in the American university. As Catherine Liu argues in American Idyll (2011), however, the academic Left’s anti-elitist form of critique coincided with the deregulated neoliberal market: “it is critical to juxtapose the academic success of a new politics of culture with the political and economic successes of Reagan’s tax codes, which strengthened a new financial elite by undoing the New Deal’s fiscal policies” (2011, 14). Appropriating the counterculture’s antistatist demands for personal expression and emancipation, neoliberalism proceeded through a libertarian ideology of individual sovereignty and unrestricted market freedom, or what Thomas Frank would term “market populism.”

Committed to liberal education, Hofstadter had issued a strong critique of both Progressive-era reforms and the midcentury life-adjustment movement influenced by pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Coming in response to industrialization, an immense wave of immigration, and the advent of free and compulsory secondary education, such initiatives deprioritized academic subject matter and intellectual rigor in favor of life skills, vocational training, and the civic and cultural assimilation of a massive, heterogeneous student body. Though admirable in its devotion to equal opportunity and social mobility, American public education was ultimately self-undermining, Hofstadter argued, especially insofar as it reproduced the socioeconomic hierarchies of the European systems from which it had distinguished itself: “the relentless social realities of poverty and ethnic prejudice intervene to preserve most of the class selectivity that our democratic educational philosophy repudiates” (324).

The shortcomings and contradictions of American education have been magnified following decades of state divestment from the public sector, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Not only has the dismantling of the American welfare state perpetuated disenfranchisement and increased wealth disparities along racial lines; the liberal arts curriculum itself has come to seem antiquated amidst the utilitarian, market-driven regime of neoliberalism. If, as Nichols correctly argues, college is now perceived as a commodity — with students treated as clients and instructors regarded as service providers who are evaluated based on customer satisfaction — this has emerged in tandem with the precarization of teaching positions and the implementation of corporate logic, personnel, and funding models in institutions of higher education (with Trump University as the reductio ad absurdum). Exacerbating these trends, the President and his administration have proposed unconscionable budget cuts to educational programs, financial aid initiatives, and medical and scientific research, seeking to restructure the entire system with an eye to school choice and privatization.

Epilogue

Lacking in The Death of Expertise, I have argued, is an emphasis on the material bases of education and informed, functional citizenship as well as the inextricable linkage of economic forces with issues of social justice. Taking up the concerns of Hofstadter’s 1963 study for our time, Nichols misses a crucial opportunity to address both structural transformations and the contested legacy of New Left movements. Is Nichols nonetheless justified in stressing the fatal condition of specialized knowledge, or does Hofstadter’s account of “cyclical fluctuations” remain tenable half a century later? And have the very stakes of American anti-intellectualism escalated in view of political developments and the exigencies of our present situation?

In a 1997 text, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick noted an immense discursive shift that had occurred since the publication of Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964). One year after Anti-intellectualism in American Life, the consensus historian had offered an ostensibly even-handed account of leftist and rightist paranoia, presupposing what Sedgwick characterized as a “calm, understanding, and encompassing middle ground”; in this way, she continued, his essay represented “a prime expression of the complacent, coercive liberal consensus” of the Cold War period (1997, 142). For Sedgwick, the very datedness of Hofstadter’s examples, such as extremist opposition to federal gun control measures proposed in the wake of the JFK assassination, indicated the rightward move of the American center since the early/mid-1960s as well as the normalization of cynical, paranoid thinking across the political spectrum.

Twenty years after Sedgwick’s text, two further cleavages between Hofstadter’s time and ours come into sharper relief. Whereas the Cold War involved competing industrial and ideological regimes — or, in Hofstadter’s words, “two systems of power that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive” (135) — today’s geopolitical conflicts are arguably more intractable, involving irreducibly theological convictions and incompatible conceptions of modernity itself. Moreover, the question of global survival now relates not only to the threat of nuclear war, but also to the accelerating process of climate change, which the President and his Cabinet have disavowed. Even as the current wave of anti-intellectualism belongs to a historical pattern of “cyclical fluctuations,” the stakes of ignoring expertise have reached an alarming crest at a time of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels.

Nicholas Baer

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