Coming to grips with Republicans’ anti-intellectualism

COMING TO GRIPS WITH REPUBLICANS’ ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM…. Given the Republicans’ humiliating performance on Election Day, the party is receiving all kinds of advice about how to get back on track. Some suggestions are more sensible than others, and I’m not necessarily inclined to give the GOP guidance on how to improve.

But perusing the papers this weekend, there’s a strain of thought Republicans would be wise to take seriously: it’s time to abandon the anti-intellectualism that’s come to dominate the party’s ideology.

Rich Lowry briefly referenced the party’s “intellectual exhaustion” in a piece this morning, but that’s incomplete — it suggests Republicans have grown tired after an aggressive battle of ideas. That’s false. Republicans have come to think of reason, evidence, and scholarship as necessarily flawed, to be reviled as an enemy.

Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, a former editor of the Public Interest, lamented with conspicuous sadness what has become of conservative thought (or, in this case, the opposition to thought), punctuated with Republican glee over a vice presidential candidate “whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against.”

It’s a sad tale that began in the ’80s, when leading conservatives frustrated with the left-leaning press and university establishment began to speak of an “adversary culture of intellectuals.” … The die was cast. Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders’ intellectual virtues — indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them. […]

Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives’ “disdain for liberal intellectuals” had slipped into “disdain for the educated class as a whole,” and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn’t care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole. There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone. As for political judgment, the promotion of Sarah Palin as a possible world leader speaks for itself. The Republican Party and the political right will survive, but the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead.

Lilla’s concerns obviously ring true for any observer who’s watched the Republican Party in good faith. This is a party that seems to embrace ignorance for ignorance’s sake, as if “facts and figures” are inconvenient annoyances better left to eggheads who read books. Stephen Colbert’s parody of modern Republican leader rings true for a reason.

Nicholas Kristof noted today that Obama’s election, among other things, may mark the end of “the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.” Here’s hoping that’s true.

In August, Paul Krugman had a fairly devastating piece identifying the GOP as “the party of stupid.” As the Nobel Laureate 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.'”

If the party is sincerely looking for a way out of its self-dug ditch, taking facts, reason, and evidence seriously again would be a good start.