Friday, November 26, 2004

Republican Anti-Intellectualism

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I noted that the current state of electoral affairs privileges "style" over substance. The reticence of Americans to truly engage the issues and think critically about world affairs makes appeals to the basest of instincts--prejudice, bigotry, fear--an extremely effective electoral strategy, one at least partially responsible for recent GOP victories. Now, a paper by George Mason Government and Politics Professor Colleen J. Shogan gives some background and further analysis on this phenomona. She argues that Republican anti-intellectualism allows them to appeal to the "common man" and thus gain votes.

I got the link from Oxblog, whose David Adnesik gave a strong critique of the paper. I don't think it defeats the overall point, but I don't think that was the objective of the criticism.

Adnesik essentially argues that Shogan's article is biased because it presents academia and intellectuals as flawless. Isn't it possible that Republicans dislike the academy because of the certain (liberal) biases contained within it?

This is true, to an extent, and I think it represents a key weakness in Shogan's argument. I do not, however, think it is ultimately overriding. Even if Republicans have good reasons to ignore academics, this section struck me as almost definitely true:
"First, presidential power in the plebiscitary era relies upon the strategy of “going public.” Television is a medium that encourages images of activity and exalted rhetoric. The political era of the sound-byte frustrates an extended intellectual discussion of complex policy issues. Americans now identify directly with the presidency through fleeting visual images, and this connection is more easily forged when the presidency is depicted as “personal” rather than disconnected, antiseptic, and intellectual.

Furthermore, the plebiscitary presidency is dependent upon the creation of “spectacles” that encourage awestruck citizens to become passive spectators rather than active participants in politics.15 Spectacles lend themselves to the portrayal of presidents as energetic, dynamic, hyper-masculine individuals who defeat evil in the name of American democracy, exemplified most recently by George W. Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The intellectual process of deliberation cannot constitute a spectacle. As images replace political debate, the plebiscitary presidency becomes more anti-intellectual
The glaring dilemma is that domestic and foreign policy have become progressively complex. An inverse relationship has developed between the demands of presidential leadership and its current institutional incentives and capacities. In this sense, anti-intellectualism is an indicator of the larger structural tensions that inhibit presidential leadership. The political benefit of anti-intellectualism is the pseudo-egalitarian connection it forges between presidents and the public. The danger is that the political importance of this connection has supplanted the more intricate demands of executive governance and democratic leadership."

I think this claim is true, as is Adnesik's. Republicans can reject the academy for perfectly solid, principled reasons. However, at the moment it is also in their political interests, because a) their base is motivated by issues that recieve the LEAST argumentative (as opposed to rhetorical) discussion in America (abortion, gay marriage, etc) and b) it allows them to maintain their advantage on national security even as they oppose the very programs (Homeland Security, Nuclear Plant Security, Nunn/Lugar, etc) that protect us. Furthermore, the rational reasons for rejecting intellectualism doesn't mitigate the negative impacts of anti-intellectualism: The impoverishment of political discourse and government via soundbites. Ultimately, the rejection of analysis and debate in favor of rhetoric and assertion will cause the death of American political institutions.


TJ "Fluff-Dumplet" Knowles said...

What are you talking about? Democrats are the ones that lack an intellectual argument. Read the economic text books. Socialism doesn't work. You can reply to me at if you have the guts. I'm ready to debate you anytime. Thanks for the forum.

TJ "Fluff-Dumplet" Knowles said...

What are you talking about? Democrats are the ones that lack an intellectual argument (criminals support your party). Read an economic text book and you'll see that socialism doesn't work. I'll debate you or any of your democratic friends anytime. Email me at Let's roll.

Thanks for the forum.

N.S.T said...

The Irony of this is that it was the liberal media that facilitated and was the conduit for the move to our "Soundbite society." One thing, however, about an otherwise sound argument- I find it a bit naive to act like the mass of men in any society aren't "common men," stupid as compared to the upper reaches, the more educated parts of society. This is the way it has always been, and it is by no means something confined to America, as the europeans would have you believe. It isn't as if all the very poor people, hit by the Great depression, who voted for Roosevelt were very smart in your sense- that is, voted for him because he gave them good arguments. Roosevelt got elected because everyone hated Hoover and blamed him for the depression. Likewise, people in Europe didn't vote for Hitler-- they couldn't have done so-- because his argument appealed to their better judgement. No group of millions of people ould ever be so uniformly callous, racist, anti-semitic, and crazy(Except Southerners from the birth of our country until about 40 years ago). People put Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Castro, and all those other awful dictators in power because they were unhappy with the way their lives were going, with the way that they lived in poverty, and because the blamed this negative personal trajectory on the current authority. What does all this mena? I guess what I'm saying is that, if the common levels of society have always been, in your sense, stupid, then isn't it a bit unreasonable to get them to stop now? And, likewise, isn't it a bit unreasonable for you to implicitly indict the GOP for running campaigns tailored to what the people want? After all, isn't this what politicians DO? Do political parties really exist as entities separate from the vast majority of thier members, of those they appeal to for votes? And finally, isn't this what politicians on both sides have done for 200 years?

Trying not to be too vehement with my responses,


Cshogan said...

Since I wrote the paper, I should probably weigh in on it. To keep matters short, Adesnik's characterization of my work and my scholarly intentions on Oxblog are completely inaccurate. He will be posting an apology soon, along with my written rebuttal of his criticisms. While I do think the paper needs more consideration before publication, I stand by my original thesis.

Greg Ihrie said...

Comments trying to goad David or others into debating issues completely miss the point. The idea of this entry is to describe why the kind of in-depth debate that you want doesn't happen in the media. While I think that you're pretty much dead wrong about what the democratic economic platform is (was), debating such issues is the kind of thing that reasonable, thinking people do. The problem is that those rational discussions tend not to happen, and when they do, they often don't have any real effect on public opinion.

In a large part, I agree with David and the Professor he cites (Prof. Colleen Shogan) that the structure of the media prevents this. I've posted previously to that effect on this Blog, and I still think it holds true. Regardless of whether or not the "liberal media" can be faulted for the state of modern politics (another issue that reasonable people can discuss), it's not a pretty sight. In any case, even the "masses" - to quote another poster - deserve better than spectacles when making political choices, but CSPAN et al. don't bring in revenue the way that sensationalized news does.

A more interesting issue, in my view, is whether the Republican Party can be faulted for taking advantage of this. Personally, I think they can, along with every other political party. Perhaps it's too optimistic, but I hold the decision makers in each party responsible for the tactics they use. Because both Republicans and Democrats tacitly or explicitly consent to the current methods of sensationalized politics, I think culpability can be extended directly to people who make decisions, because they made the choice not to change a flawed system in which they are active participants. Perhaps, in their mind, the "need" to get their candidate elected outweighed the downside of supporting a flawed system for making policy decisions, but that's not a decision I agree with. Change starts with individual actions, and decisions by folks intimately involved with the current political system which tacitly or explicitly support the continuation of the flaws prevent needed changes from happening.

Randomscrub said...

All of this discussion begs a crucial question: Is it the responsibility of a political party to debate the issues and thus attempt to sway voters to a position they hold, or should they simply give us, the people, options and let us choose? This is a conundrum I've been working on for a while, and I'm not sure. While I do want to see more debate in the public eye on important issues, it's hard to say that the burden of debate lies on the parties. I think it's their job to present us with the choices, and our job to go get informed on which is best, not sit on our duff and wait to be spoon-fed intellectual discourse.