As I wrote last week, certain forms of anti-intellectualism are very prevalent in our cultural values and present themselves in different ways across society. In terms of the political arena, the history of anti-intellectualism goes back to the beginning of our democracy and acts as a specific form of anti-elitism. In today’s America, this underlying cultural feeling has been capitalized upon by a new generation of populist leaders, causing a resurgence of distrust in experts on all policy issues. As people become more involved with alternative facts and lying politicians, experts within the scientific and academic community must respond to prevent the decline of the American intellectual.
In the past, the stance of the intellectual has often gone against the values associated with traditional American life. The position of higher academic pursuit outside of Christian fundamentalist values and typical capitalist economic gain has historically placed intellectuals at odds with societal power structures. However, in the early stages of American history, when intellectuals were almost exclusively separated from common people by geographical and class barriers, disdain for them originated. As such, after the elitist structures within the election systems came down, there began to be waves of populist leaders capitalizing on their position as “anti-intellectuals”.
The first was Andrew Jackson in 1828, and further examples can be seen in Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan over a century later. They used stereotypes that capitalized on popular resentment based on historical class contentions as political tools. Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson, a Princeton-educated lawyer in the presidential race in 1952, because Stevenson had a reputation as an effeminate, “egghead” of a man.
In his attacks on the Californian intellectual institutions while Governor, Regan referred to faculty and students as “self-indulgent snobs who were contemptuous of middle-class values.” These statements demonstrate the disconnect between the academic community and common people, as they have only been influencial because of the isolation between these two groups.
In the modern day, we see this trend as having massive consequences on our political landscape. Donald Trump, the latest anti-intellectual leader, fundamentally changed the landscape of information in America both during and after his presidency with attacks on media outlets and experts. The election fraud claims that his campaign put forward have created a shocking new era of misinformation that most Americans feel threatens the very state of our democracy. The same broad effect of misinformation was seen with his dangerous claims downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it all the more lethal and hard to control. It is due to the discrediting of experts and authority figures that myths and misinformation can have such a pronounced effect and create such a divided nation. A nation that does not trust experts clearly loses a safeguard against political manipulation and becomes an easy target for strongman leaders with ill intentions.
Now, there is a lot of nuance that should be discussed to make the point that this is an issue the academic community must face with all Americans. As much as I have talked about mostly Republican leaders throughout this article, anti-intellectualism is not a partisan issue. Although it is more strongly associated with right-wing ideology, it exists in certain forms across the political spectrum. It is also not simply stated that a lack of education creates this problem. This feeling does have valid roots in a time when higher education was exclusive to the wealthy. Intellectuals often were a staunchly conservative population that upheld a much less democratic system and social order than we enjoy now. As such, this distrust was somewhat justified.
The problem now is that this is no longer the case. In the past hundred years, America has seen a democratization of higher education like never before. Although it is far from a perfect system, the doors of higher education on all levels are much further open than in the past. For example, the expansion of public universities has given greater access to a much more diverse group of students across the nation. Currently, even private universities are opening their doors with more conscious admissions and testing practices, leading to some gains in increased access.
The point is that academic communities are no longer the elitist stalwarts that they used to be, and feature more regular people who share the same views and dissatisfaction with political systems. Yet, the distrust still exists. The way to fix this is through opening the doors further.
The barriers to information and access to higher education only further isolate the greater community and make it a target for anti-elitist views.
We will have more people coming to trust the words of academics when there is open discourse and higher levels of integrity in research. It is the responsibility of academics themselves and institutions of higher education to fight for a better relationship with the broader public, and that only comes by opening themselves up to them.