In the wake of this November's election of Barack Obama, dozens of media commentators have heralded this as a welcome respite in the anti-intellectualism that has dominated American society and American politics for the past thirty years.
One media pundit (sorry I can't remember who) has said that Obama, unlike other presidents of the last forty years is "openly intellectual." Sure Clinton was a scholar during his college years, but he down played his scholarly background behind a folksy southern persona, leading voters to think that he just might be a "red-neck." [By the way, if Jeff Foxworthy is right, I too just might be a red-neck, since the instructions on how to reach my house include "and then you turn off the paved road" and my house originally came with wheels].
It is tempting to say that the roots of anti-intellectualism in American politics come from the simple lack of brainpower of the common man (or woman). They aren't so smart so they mistrust anyone who is openly interested in the life of the mind and intellectual ideas. Given that Obama, "openly intellectual" as he is, garnered the largest percentage and larger number of the popular vote in recent history, suggests that such a simple explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps that is the motivation of a few individuals here and there, but it doesn't help to account for the way in which anti-intellectualism is structured into our society, especially into our educational system. Also it doesn't explain why Republicans candidates and voters are more likely to exude contempt of intellectual accomplishment even more than Democrats do.
The key to understanding anti-intellectualism is found in our economic system and its current troubles. It is clear, beyond doubt, that our economy depends upon people buying things. When consumer confidence goes down, and people cut back on their purchases, our economy tanks. Regardless of all the sanctimonious sermons about people spending more than they earn, and going into credit card debt, the reality is, that our economy has been built on people spending beyond their means.
In troubled times like these, the rational choice for individuals is to save their money and not spend it, but what makes sense for individuals is exactly opposite what is needed to recharge the economy. Certainly there are economic systems that do exist and have existed that do not rest on consumerism and credit, but ours is not one of them.
When the health of the economy depends upon ordinary people spending and consuming larger and larger quantities of material goods, society must provide incentives to make people desire to spend beyond their means. One important tool in doing this is to attach cultural and social values to material things. Advertising is one means of doing this. Through advertising values of family, success, achievement, sexiness, love, and many others, are attached to material products.
More than a hundred years ago, Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the role of consumption in establishing status. The only thing that has changed since Veblen's time is that the use of consumption of luxury goods has been pushed further and further down the income scale. As a result, even low income teenagers will pay $36-$46 dollars for an Abercrombie & Fitch logo t-shirt, rather than $4-$6 for a similar quality blank t-shirt at Walmart. Where the wealthy rely on their peers knowledge of designers style (if you couldn't recognize a Chanel suit, a Lily Pulitzer frock, or an Dior gown, on sight your opinion hardly mattered), lower middle class and working class young people rely on large graphics of "high class" names spread across their chests, backs and down their arms.
When consumption is the bedrock of the economy, and appeals to status are crucial to encouraging continual consumption, there is little room to tolerate alternative, non-consumption based sources of status. Intellectual, creative and artistic pursuits -- except to the degree that they represent monetary exchange -- need to be actively discouraged since they can distract people away from consumption.
Degrees are fine, especially if they come from expensive schools, its knowledge and thinking that are viewed as bothersome. About fourteen years ago, the commencement speaker at the public four year college where I was then employed was a politically appointed state bureaucrat in a Republican administration. He congratulated the graduates on receiving their degrees, and then offered himself as an example of someone who had managed to get a college degree "without letting college change" him, or his beliefs and opinions in any way. This young Republican bureaucrat was proud of the fact that he had come through four years of college unscared by any troublesome knowledge that would undermine in any way the prejudices and attitudes with which he had entered college.
Similarly, art that commands high sale prices is fine, but art for art's sake is not. Negative attitudes toward the National Endowment for the Arts, and the artists that it supports demonstrate this latter view. Conservatives consider the only good art is that which has commercial value. The only artistic value is the value of the market place.
The ordinary individual who expresses distrust, fear and contempt for intellectualism or artistic creativity, is not thinking about promoting consumerism, but there are those in positions of leadership and influence, in government and the media, who are consciously undermining non-commercial sources of status and life satisfaction such as intellectual and artistic endeavor.