Anti-intellectualism in American life

Anti-intellectualism in American life

If you want to understand how and why Donald Trump has just been elected then I strongly suggest reading Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. It was published in 1963 but is highly relevant to today in understanding the swings through history for and against expertise, and how expertise is either viewed as the solution to society’s problems or as the enemy of the people.

I bought it in the summer to better understand the rise of Trump and ended up reading it the week after the US election result. What struck me the most on reading it was the need to ditch any idea of the linear progress of history and instead to understand that history happens in waves, with periods of progress followed by backlashes against them (also excellently articulated in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast episode The Lady Vanishes). The quote that will stay with me the most is ‘but such moments do not last.’ Either the good ones, or indeed the bad ones.

The book goes through American history to understand public attitudes to intellectuals, examining along the way the role of religion in the history in America and the changing philosophies within education (and it also, for those in my line of work, provides a great history of civil service reform). Whilst being clear that the complexity of American history cannot be reduced to a ‘running battle between the eggheads and the fatheads’, it shows how in anti-intellectual periods intellectuals have been seen as pretentious, conceited and snobbish and possibly immoral, dangerous and subversive. In contrast, the ‘plain sense of the common man’, has been seen as a superior form of knowledge and expertise to that acquired in education. In these eras intellect and expertise are resented as a form of power or privilege.

So, to run through some of that history, Hofstadter starts by pointing out that when the US began its existence the relationship between intellect and power was not a problem – the leaders were the intellectuals. But a backlash occurred as the forces of evangelicalism produced a virulent anti-intellectualism and Adams was the last nineteenth century occupant of the White House who had ‘a knowledgeable sympathy with the aims and aspirations of science’. He was triumphed over by Andrew Jackson and one of the contrasts between them was summarised in the phrase of the time: ‘John Quincy Adams who can write and Andrew Jackson who can fight’.

During the nineteenth century, when business dominated American culture, and most businessmen had little formal education, schooling was often said to be useless. Intellectual pursuits were called unwieldy, un-masculine and impractical, and personal advancement was seen as better gained by engaging with the practical tasks of life. This view was building just as year by year over several decades the heartland of America, filled with people ‘who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy and conservative in economics’ were forced to cope with the change being forced upon them by modern life.

As the century drew to a close, it was dominated by the era of Progressivism from the 1890s to World War One, and Hofstadter points out that within just two generations the village Protestant individualist culture so widely observed before the first world war was repeatedly shocked by change – modernism, mass communications, Darwinism, Freudianism, Marxism, and Keynesianism, and had to submit in matters of politics and taste to a new leadership of educated and cosmopolitan America. This sounds so very familiar to the contemporary situation, where the forces of globalisation have forced change upon much of America’s heartland that voted in protest against it for Trump.

The reaction against Progressivism came in the 1920s, before the intellectuals and experts came into the ascendancy again in the time of FDR in the 1930s. This New Deal era saw experts having access to the White House whilst the President kept politicians at arms length, and the need for intellectuals to play a practical role was greater than anyone could have anticipated, with thousands of jobs going to young lawyers and economists who flocked to Washington.

The backlash against this period was paused due to the Second World War but came back with avengeance in the form of 1950s McCarthyism. By the early 1950s Hofstadter argues that it was felt that intellectuals did not understand their country and had grown irresponsible and arrogant and that their chastening was very much in order. He argues that the real purpose of the ‘Great Inquisition of the 1950s’ was to discharge resentments and frustrations and to punish liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, and intellectuals, as those who opposed the New Deal did so with a feverish hostility rarely seen in American politics.

Words written about the 1950s have so much relevance today: ‘that intellectuals have been made to bear some share of the irritation of those who cannot believe that the changes of the twentieth century are consequences of anything but a sinister campaign of manipulation and design, or at the very least a series of fatally stupid errors’.

Someone with equivalent weight and insightfulness as Hofstadter needs to update this book and take its analysis to the present day. I also wonder if a UK equivalent could be written to help our understanding of the forces at play in the EU referendum campaign.