Brooks on Conservative Anti-Intellectualism:

David Brooks' column today is a must read, particularly for us right-wing, would-be-intellectual types. A few excerpts:

Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. . . . William F. Buckley famously said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn't believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.

Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind. . . .

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. . . .

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect. . . .

The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.

The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it's 2-to-1. With tech executives, it's 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it's 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community. . . .

And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission — because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away.

I think Brooks makes several important and valid points about conservative anti-intellectualism. Just think about how otherwise intelligent conservatives embrace unscientific critiques of evolutionary theory and celebrate (instead of simply excuse) Gov. Palin's lack of academic credentials. It may well be the case that the smartest and most educated political candidates may not make the best political leaders, but this hardly makes the lack of formal education or intellectual curiosity a qualification in itself.

I also think Brooks overlooks something quite important. Some of the central ideas in modern conservatism — such as the impossibility of central economic planning, the nature of spontaneous order, and the idea that longstanding social traditions embody vast stores of social learning — are inherently hostile to certain intellectual conceits, particularly the idea that if only the right people were in charge (the intellectuals themselves) most social problems could be solved. Further, most modern conservatives embrace an economic system — free-market capitalism — that does not reward intellectual achievement at the level many intellectuals would prefer. Thus, while conservatism does not need to be (and should not be) anti-intellectual, there may be a limit to the extent to which intellectuals, as a class, will embrace modern conservative ideas.


Conservatism, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Political Failures of the Republican Party:

Jonathan Adler links to David Brooks' op ed arguing that conservative politics has gotten too anti-intellectual. Some of Brooks' points, are I think, well-taken. It is true that Republican politicians often engage in crude intellectual-bashing and that some conservatives embrace ridiculous unscientific ideas, such as denial of evolution in favor of more extreme forms of creationism. Jonathan, in turn, rightly points out that aspects of conservatism - including free market economics - will always have limited appeal to intellectuals.

At the same time, it is far from clear that conservatives are suffering politically because they have lost the support of the more educated classes, as Brooks contends. To the contrary, survey data continue to show that Republican voters, on average, have higher education levels than Democrats do. For example, the 2004 National Election Study (data summarized in Table 7.4 here), show that 45% of college graduates self-identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, as do 44% of those with "some" college education. By contrast, only 38% of high school graduates and 20% of those with only a grade school education identify as Republicans. Self-identified "strong Republicans" also have, on average, higher levels of political knowledge than self-identified "strong Democrats." I hasten to add that I do not believe that Republicans tend to be more educated and knowledgeable because education and knowledge necessarily lead people to embrace conservative ideas. The most likely explanation for the correlation between education, political knowledge, and Republican identification is simply that education and knowledge are also highly correlated with income. And we know from many studies, such as Andrew Gelman's excellent recent book, that income is a strong predictor of Republican identification and voting.

Nonetheless, it's hard to argue, as Brooks does, that the Republican Party is slipping because it appeals mostly to the ignorant and uneducated. The real reason for the party's recent electoral setbacks is that voters from a wide range of income classes blame it (with some justice) for the mishandling of the Iraq War, the poor condition of the economy, and other policy failures. Republican politicians who think that political impact of these failures can be offset by ramping up their attacks on intellectuals and "coastal elites" are probably mistaken. But so too are those who think that the party's problems can be solved by increasing its appeal to what Brooks calls "the educated class."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Conservatism, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Political Failures of the Republican Party:
  2. Brooks on Conservative Anti-Intellectualism: