Exploiting anti-intellectualism by, among other things, caricaturing opponents as pointy-headed academic types from the dreaded Ivory Tower, wins elections. Or at least it did in 1952 and 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded in portraying Princeton-educated Adlai Stevenson as out of touch. And again — to some degree — in 1972, when Richard Nixon invoked the “silent majority” against those snobby college students supporting George McGovern.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis was just too deliberative and analytical to be president. In 2004, Americans rejected a senator known for his thoughtfulness (some would say flip-floppery) in favor of George W. Bush ’68, who hides his degrees from Yale and Harvard under a deluge of semi-coherent phrases uttered straight from the gut. Bush has presided over a Justice Department that values ideology over ability in hiring decisions — one of many pieces of evidence that this administration prefers rigid zealotry to, well, thinking.
The 2008 election should have given us no reason to expect anything different. John McCain, after all, didn’t let his woeful academic record stop him from becoming a war hero. McCain has always portrayed himself as a man of action, legendary for his temper, eager to make the quick decision (like, say, suspending his campaign to “help out” in an area where he had previously acknowledged his lack of expertise). His opponent, on the other hand, is a law professor with two Ivy League degrees who chose as his running mate a blowhard senator who also teaches constitutional law in his spare time.
If Karl Rove weren’t “spending more time with his family,” he’d be salivating at the prospect of reminding the American people that grave times call not for “deliberation” and “using one’s brain” but rather for shooting from the hip. Just like John McCain and, more literally, Sarah Palin, who guns down moose in her spare time.
For all the talk about the Palin pick as a pandering gesture to the religious right and disenchanted Hillary voters, it seems that the McCain campaign saw her as a way to tap into America’s latent mistrust of eggheads. Put simply, Palin’s record bolsters the McCain campaign’s anti-intellectual credentials.
Unlike Bush, Sarah Barracuda doesn’t have any Ivy League diplomas to hide. She’s just a small-town mayor and a corruption-fighting governor, not some senator from the big city inside the Beltway. She doesn’t need to think deeply (or at all) about foreign policy — she can see Russia from her state (at least from a few virtually uninhabited islands that Alaska happens to own). Anyone thinking that Palin brings substance to the McCain campaign needs only to watch her convention speech again — light on issues, heavy on lipsticked hockey moms in small-town America facing off against urban elites and community organizers.
Unfortunately for McCain’s vision of a Palin-fueled jig to the Oval Office, something unprecedented seems to be happening in America. Something that didn’t happen in the 1950s, or in 1972, or 1988, or 2004. I’m not talking about the financial crisis, although that has played an unquestioned role in Barack Obama’s recent rise in the polls. I’m talking about America maybe, finally, coming face-to-face with the consequences of rampant anti-intellectualism, as embodied by Sarah Palin’s particular brand of incompetence in her interview with Katie Couric.
I don’t mean to suggest that Palin herself is anti-intellectual. She may be a smart and incredibly curious person, and only the campaign-imposed iron curtain separating her from the press prevents Americans from seeing that.
What should be apparent is that the McCain campaign presents her as the symbol of an American very different from the caricature of Barack Obama and Joe Biden as windbag intellectuals. William F. Buckley ’50, in an explicitly anti-intellectual moment, once said, “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.” McCain has overtly cast this campaign with Palin representing the phone book and Obama and Biden the Harvard faculty. And yet, as Americans have gotten to know her — from a few choice encounters — poll data is beginning to suggest that we overwhelmingly prefer the effete blowhards.
The Couric interview offered an egregious example of anti-intellectualism gone too far. When McCain’s paragon of the common American couldn’t name any of McCain’s legislative accomplishments, and couldn’t acknowledge the sheer laughability of her claims to “foreign policy experience,” and — in an as-yet-unseen segment — couldn’t name a single U.S. Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade, perhaps we finally realized that the relentless attack on intellectual behavior was driving us off a cliff. Perhaps we realized that we need people in the White House who weigh decisions thoughtfully and occasionally call up an expert or two.
After eight years of Bush, maybe America woke up to the real-life consequences of anti-intellectualism run amok. Palin’s three-week journey from fresh face to national embarrassment suggests that something has finally changed. And if the (seemingly) approaching defeat of McCain-Palin ’08 signals a more thinking-friendly era in American politics, well, all the better.
Xan White is a senior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org