Anti-Intellectualism: Contemporary Conservatism’s Biggest Pitfall

Sarah Palin, the face of the Republican Party, sure. The voice of it, not so much.

Many critics of the right take great pleasure in condescending to those who do not think, act or live like them, and far leftists never miss an opportunity to quip about the stupidity of conservatives. While they are wrong to do this, one must acknowledge that there are many current conservative personalities and positions that do not help the image of conservatism. Consequently, they do an injustice to the legacy of respectable conservative figures, such as William F. Buckley Jr. Such actions from these conservative factions make me wonder if liberals may, in fact, have some legitimate criticisms.

One way that such liberals undoubtedly surmised the alleged stupidity of conservatives is through contemporary conservative media and its frequently brash style. News Corporation is one of the most powerful media companies in the world, and it expresses its conservative views through many venues, with Fox News probably being its largest outlet in the United States. And since television is still the most powerful medium, Fox News is crucial to perpetuating a conservative voice. While Fox has some quality shows, at times it just makes me cringe. Fox News especially projects some negative images of conservatives and contemporary conservatism, and perhaps the biggest reason for this is because of the rampant anti-intellectualism I see from many of its personalities. This saddens and perturbs me, not to mention that it reflects quite poorly on behalf of Fox News and conservatism in general, being that Fox is a leading resource for conservatives and the Republican Party.

The accusation of anti-intellectualism in conservatism is not a new topic, but I rarely see anybody suggest ways to remedy this perpetual, serious problem. And, as a concerned citizen, I offer some constructive criticisms to conservative leaders to reduce the anti-intellectualism that I believe is perhaps the biggest pitfall of contemporary conservatism. For starters:

Gingrich is a real voice of Conservative reason

Find some new spokespeople. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and many sitting politicians are not doing you any favors. What is unclear to me is whether these figures are truly as inane as they appear on television or if that is the media persona that they adopt. While the media in general are often too harsh toward the aforementioned personalities, the vacuity of their rhetoric alone does not bode well for conservatism. They are either genuinely not that bright or are targeting the lowest common denominator, neither of which is a good thing. Instead, go with more thoughtful, cerebral, articulate and highly educated conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Carol Swain or the brilliant Theodore Dalrymple.

Stop ridiculing educated people. Some popular conservative voices seem to enjoy blatantly insulting writers, commentators, intellectuals or anyone else if that individual happens to hold an advanced degree (unless that person is on their side of the argument and is useful to them). Is that really the attitude you want to exude? I’ve seen Sean Hannity malign thinkers numerous times, but he also conveniently appeals to authority when the occasion calls. Many leftists are guilty of this method as well, but the loudest conservative pundits are not helping their cause. Then there are the highly educated conservatives, such as Monica Crowley and Newt Gingrich, who disingenuously play down their own education in a lame attempt at populism. Sure, college is not for everyone, and there are probably a lot more students enrolled in college than there should be, but the last thing the U.S. needs right now is more negative sentiment toward its educated population.

Learn how to use proper English. “Democrat party,” “grow the economy” and “increase jobs” are just some examples of horrible entries in the contemporary conservative lexicon. Poor grammar is unfortunately a problem across the political spectrum, but it is especially unhelpful for those conservatives who struggle to look halfway intelligent while they are under constant media scrutiny.

Business and free markets are NOT the answer to absolutely everything. Complete deregulation is not a good idea given the rampant corruption and illegal activity in the financial world when we have the restrictions that are already in place. Stop indiscriminately lambasting the government and the public sector. Sure, business is important and capitalism is good overall, but universities, museums, libraries, many government agencies and non-profit organizations generally do good work and serve worthwhile purposes. Perhaps you should actually be a little more fastidious with the industries that you tirelessly defend, such as oil and tobacco, or stop being friendly with those sociopaths on Wall Street. Most churches do not make money, so should we privatize them, too?

Party affiliation obliges no one to think or vote a certain way. Party loyalty is admirable, but it does not mean that if someone follows a particular position against the party line (such as a pro-choice Republican or a pro-life Democrat), he or she is a “traitor.” One is not required to subscribe to every view that is typically associated with a political party, and people have a right to change their minds or make decisions based on individual cases. Are you a person or a sheep?

Stop exploiting Christianity. I cannot read your mind, so I do not know how religious you are. You have every right to worship and believe as you choose, but many conservatives use religion, especially Christianity, to pander to people, sometimes the wrong people. Sadly, many of these ostensible “Christians” are blatantly ignorant of their own professed religion. Fundamentalism and blind faith are dangerous no matter what religion you subscribe to. Secularism and agnosticism are not the same as atheism. The belief in evolution does not preclude the belief in God.

Then there are the seemingly irresolvable, polarizing issues such as gay marriage, stem cell research, gun control, poverty, immigration, defense spending, the environment, the death penalty, drug legalization, health care and abortion. As much as some people don’t want to hear it, we must find some sense of compromise on these issues in terms of public policy. This will require action to get anywhere, and rhetorical wars and intransigence on behalf of any political party are unhelpful, only prolong the debate and further stagnate policy-making.

Many people lament the mass incompetence of our children, students, labor force, that the United States appears to be falling behind the rest of the world, and that America is becoming seemingly more … well, trashy. Some conservatives, including anti-intellectual politicians, pundits and regular citizens, are enabling this to happen through their own rhetoric and actions. By lowering the bar for themselves, they are creating excuses for the American public to keep the bar low in society and in their own lives. I believe that education (and the lack thereof) and the attitude toward it is one of the principal components both causing and resolving our country’s serious problems with regard to how human capital is or is not utilized.

Everyone knows that education is a key issue for Democrats and liberals. But aren’t they right to support such a crucial issue? Unfortunately, there are some major Republicans who are notorious for cutting funding for education, a move that hurts everybody. Sending the message that education is not a priority does not help others make it a priority in their own lives, and the negative consequences are multifaceted and widespread. The anti-intellectual attitudes of many conservatives in particular clearly contribute to this problem.

As we are already in the midst of a contentious and toxic political environment, and as we approach a crucial election next year, it is in the best interest of conservatives to cease the pervasive anti-intellectualism that seems to dominate the Right today. Willful ignorance and the “books are for queers” mentality that clearly not all, but way too many, conservatives project is not exactly a productive counterposition to combat the many fallacies championed by leftist ideologies. It is bad for your image, even worse for policy and only holds us all back.

Charles H. Wade, Ph.D., is a geographer based in the Cincinnati area.




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1 Comment

  • Frank

    Dr. Wade is fighting a battle already lost. Anti-intellectualism is not the pitfall of conservatism, it is its very soul, built upon the foundations of revealed truth and authoritarian submission.

    Ideas mean nothing if they do not serve power. Gingrich and Krauthammer understand this better than our writer, the former content to dissemble and mislead for his own interest, the latter for the interests of those he is loyal to.



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