Obama’s election signaled a shift in America’s attitudes towards intellectuals. In an age that culminated in George W. Bush’s seemingly black-and-white morality, gray matter seemed to garner little respect and even fewer votes. “Brainy” candidates — part of a tradition ranging from Thomas Dewey to, ahem, Al Gore — were successfully attacked on populist grounds. Obama should have fallen into the same trap. He had a string of Ivy-League degrees, a cerebral manner, two successful books, and real intelligence. Remarkably, he won in part because of these facts, not despite them. The man chosen to be president of the Harvard Law Review would, for many of the same reasons, be elected as the President of the United States.
Stranger still was that this elite candidate was called on at a time when his fellow brahmins had lost any moral claim to the power they held. Princeton men and Harvardians had run the economy into the ground, but Obama was nonetheless called on to effect a new revenge of the nerds. One Ivy-League website summed up the establishment’s dilemma by admitting, “We got us into this mess and we can’t get us out.”
Obama’s nerd cred dovetailed well with natural strengths of the Democratic Party. On issues ranging from stem-cell research to global warming, Democrats have successfully identified their political priorities with the authority of science. Republicans’ populist campaign rhetoric had been tied to a governing style that seemed indifferent to facts. Stem-cell researchers eager for funding were eager to fight an administration that had been discredited on empirical matters. Advocates exploited this advantage on embryonic stem-cell research by disguising a moral question as a matter of mere science. Robert George and Eric Cohen pointed this out in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:
Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.
While the question Obama sidestepped in his stem-cell pronouncement was moral and political, it was, above all, an intellectual one. Obama’s desire to transcend partisan differences exhibited itself here as a refusal to acknowledge that ethical considerations in this matter were important or, really, contestable. While this may not strike us anti-intellectual per se — Obama is no pitchfork populist — it shows a deeply anti-intellectual unease with fundamental disagreement. But disagreement and debate are essential to the pursuit of truth that stands at the heart of the intellectual enterprise. Here and elsewhere, Obama has transcended differences by denying their existence.
Obama’s pronouncement on stem cells is disappointing, but it is far from surprising. Obama’s elite anti-intellectualism has a long pedigree in American liberalism. In The New Radicalism in America, Christopher Lasch described how the passionate social reformer Jane Addams placed the imperative to improve one’s surroundings above the pursuit of truth. This decision reflects the elites’ broader desire to ignore or even deny the existence of legitimate disagreements on questions of first principles.
Obama commands the support of the academy and the scorn of Rush Limbaugh. Despite all their disagreements, the president and his talk-radio nemesis can find common ground in that they represent two strains of American distrust of the mind. The problem with Obama’s elite anti-intellectualism as opposed to its populist cousin is that it is much more likely to be behind the actions of those power, and so to adversely affect the country. It could hardly be more ironic or disappointing that we have a new president who distills the elite strain of America’s multi-varied anti-intellectualism.