By electing Barack Obama, the American people have proved a lot of political clichés wrong: that Americans wouldn’t elect a black man, or a northern Democrat, or a senator, or someone without extensive national security experience in a time of war. But there’s another cliché that has also bitten the dust, even though it hasn’t received much attention. By electing Barack Obama, Americans have showed that you can win the presidency without appearing dumb.
For more than a half-century, anti-intellectualism has had a pretty good run in presidential politics. In fact, Republicans would never have gotten where they are without it. In the 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was born, the right had a problem: It was seen as elitist, a hangover from the depression years, when Thomas Nast-style plutocrats opposed social security, labor unions and federal aid to the poor. Conservatives needed a way to turn the tables, to show that liberals—those self-proclaimed tribunes of the common man—were the real elitists. That’s where anti-intellectualism came in. If FDR had practiced class warfare, the Cold War right turned to brain warfare instead. William F. Buckley, founder of the right’s flagship publication, National Review, began going around saying that “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama doesn’t temper his intellectualism by embracing his inner Bubba.
In the early 1950s, Richard Nixon slyly fused anti-intellectualism and anti-communism, calling Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson a “Ph.D. graduate of the College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” And in his 1968 presidential bid, Alabama Governor George Wallace condemned “pointy-headed professors” who were imposing their liberal ideas on the segregated South. But it was under Ronald Reagan that the anti-intellectual era in American politics truly began. Reagan harbored strong ideological convictions, but an astonishing unawareness of basic facts. At one meeting in 1983, he amazed a group of congressmen by denying that America had bombers and subs that carried nuclear weapons. (In fact, bombers and submarines constituted two-thirds of America’s nuclear triad). His advisors proved so unable to get him to read his briefing materials that some of them began conveying the information in cartoon form.
America loved it. In the 1980s, the economy boomed, Soviet communism fell and Reagan became one of the most beloved presidents in American history. Compared to his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, a speed-reading workaholic who often corrected aides on their grammar, and who presided over stagflation at home and humiliation abroad, Americans found Reagan’s sunny ignorance a welcome change.
In this way, as in so many others, George W. Bush followed the Reagan script. In the 2000 campaign, he famously flubbed a quiz on world leaders and talked defiantly about “Grecians” and “nucular weapons.” He said he knew he was going to win when he read a New Yorker profile in which Al Gore cited the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
But if Reagan burnished the anti-intellectual brand, Bush has now wrecked it. Sometime between the catastrophe in Iraq, the catastrophe in New Orleans and the catastrophe on Wall Street, Americans decided that people who didn’t know much about government weren’t likely to run it very well. Back in 2000, when Bush stumbled and fumbled his way through interviews and debates, his approval ratings stayed high. When Sarah Palin did the same this year, however, her popularity sunk like a stone. In September and October, when John McCain couldn’t talk fluently about the financial crisis, his campaign crashed and burned.
In Washington, there are signs that even on the right, ignorance is no longer considered bliss. When Bush tried to put his absurdly unqualified White House Counsel, Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court in 2005, several prominent conservative commentators rose up in opposition. And this fall, many of them frankly acknowledged that Palin was not qualified to be a heartbeat away. Ask conservative pundits who they’d like to see win the GOP nomination in 2012, and many mention Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a health care super-wonk with an Oxford degree.
On the left, meanwhile, Obama is stocking his administration with eggheads. Unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn’t temper his intellectualism by embracing his inner Bubba. In his White House, even the Marine General speaks French. Are there dangers to all this hyper-credentialized brainpower? Sure. Americans are instinctive populists, with a highly tuned ear for people who think they’re better, or smarter, than them. Intellectual haughtiness is a particular danger for Democrats, who still live or die on their reputation as the party of the little guy. As the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan once put it, “A party of the working class cannot be dominated by former editors of the Harvard Crimson.”
But for the moment, at least, intellectualism is back. George W. Bush may have been a fun guy to have around for awhile, but politics has turned deadly serious, and economically, the party is very much over. Americans aren’t looking for a president to share a beer with; they’re looking for a president who can handle a brutal national hangover. The nerds are having their revenge. If they can get us out of this one, future presidents won’t be mangling their syntax for a very long time.
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Peter Beinart is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.