Bolstering anti-intellectual credentials

For eight years, just about every time George W. Bush was in the same room as someone with a post-graduate degree, the failed former president would tell the same joke: “I remind people that, like when I’m with Condi I say, she’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C-student, and just look at who’s the president and who’s the advisor.”

Republican crowds always cheered the line, reinforcing the anti-intellectual attitudes that too often dominate conservative thought. The man who succeeded Bush in Austin, and hopes to succeed Bush as the next Republican president, is cut from the same cloth.

As a child, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was dead set on being a veterinarian. “That was my heart’s content. It’s what I always wanted to do,” he said.

Then came a day of reckoning, during the second semester of his sophomore year at Texas A&M University, when he went to see the dean of the veterinary school. His advice: switch to an easier major.

“He said, `Son, I’m looking at your transcript,'” Mr. Perry said. “‘You want to be an animal science major.'”

Perry made the joke during a speech yesterday at Liberty University, a school founded by crazed televangelist Jerry Falwell. The Texas governor didn’t say much about politics, but he spent a fair amount of time talking about what a lousy student he was.

Perry noted, for example, that at his small high school, “I graduated in the top 10 of my graduating class — of 13.” The crowd laughed and applauded.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer at the Washington Post, said Perry’s speech “was, at least in part, a celebration of ignorance.” She added, “Yes, he was trying to be self-deprecating, but it’s disturbing to see that he thinks being a rotten student and a know-nothing gives one street cred in the GOP.”

I don’t agree with Rubin on much of anything, but on this, I think she’s on the right track. In Republican politics, there is an anti-intellectual streak. Perry expected to get laughter and applause for doing poorly in school — just as Bush did — and his audience didn’t disappoint.

If this were only a matter of politicians with bad grades decades earlier, it would hardly be worth mentioning. It doesn’t exactly set a good example for young people — “don’t worry too much about working hard in school; you can still reach powerful leadership positions thanks to fundraising, consultants, and attack ads” — but I really don’t much care about Perry’s transcripts.

What matters is what this tells us about anti-intellectualism in Republican politics today, and the fact that the Perry and Bush jokes always generate applause from conservative audiences.

Three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a memorable column identifying the GOP as “the party of stupid.” The columnist explained, “What I mean … is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: ‘Real men don’t think things through.'”

That was in August 2008. Is there any doubt that the criticism seems even truer today? We see it constantly from congressional Republicans, who seem to have an allergy to reason and evidence, and we’re seeing it more and more at the presidential level. Indeed, Perry isn’t just celebrating anti-intellectualism; he’s living it. He doesn’t care what biologists, climate scientists, economists, historians, or dictionaries have to offer; Perry already has all the information he needs.

The fact that so many millions of voters find this appealing is disconcerting, isn’t it?