Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Today’s backlash against intellectual life cannot simply be written off as a popular celebration of mindlessness.

Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell (right) championed populist demands as a member of Roosevelt's "brain trust." (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency and continues to govern as a man who is anti-intellectual, as well as anti-fact and anti-truth. “The experts are terrible,” Trump said while discussing foreign policy during the 2016 campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.”

But Trump belongs to a long U.S. tradition of skepticism about the role and motivations of intellectuals in political life. And his particularly toxic version of this tradition raises provocative and difficult questions: Are there occasions when anti-intellectualism is defensible or justified? Should we always dismiss charges that intellectuals are out of touch or too protective of established ways of thinking?


In 1963 the historian Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, in which he traced a recurring mode of thought prevalent, as he saw it, in U.S. religion, business, education, and politics. “There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed,” he wrote. “[F]or this mind, group hatreds take a place in politics similar to the class struggle in some other modern societies.” On the list of widely hated groups were Masons, abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, black Americans, immigrants, international bankers—and intellectuals.

Hofstadter’s skepticism of mass opinion—on both the left and the right—came through quite clearly. “[T]he heartland of America,” he wrote, “filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.” It is not an accident that these words sound familiar in the Trump era. A liberalism that viewed the heartland with skepticism was bound to encourage the heartland to return the favor.

For Christopher Lasch, a Hofstadter student and a gifted political and cultural historian, the problem with liberal intellectuals like his mentor was precisely that they were too willing to defend the status quo, too eager to stand with “the elite against the mob.” American intellectuals, Lasch wrote, increasingly saw themselves as “members of a beleaguered minority” and had developed their own sense of “class consciousness.” He went on to criticize the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals,” with their devotion to “the cult of the hard-boiled” and their embrace of the image of themselves put forward by their critics.

Hofstadter was responding to McCarthyism and the defeat of his political hero Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. The younger Lasch was reacting against elite intellectuals whom he saw as the architects of Cold War policies that led inexorably to the Vietnam War. Hofstadter counted on intellectuals to save the nation from irrationality. Lasch saw intellectuals as rationalizing abhorrent policies.

But both historians, in their own ways, miss something important. Different forms of anti-intellectualism have different purposes and different roots, and there is a danger in mistaking genuinely democratic impulses for wholesale assaults on the life of the mind. There are times when intellectuals are elitist in their disdain for those outside their class, and when the intellectual style can be mobilized in opposition to genuine expressions of democratic values.

The Populist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a noteworthy example of how an anti-intellectual backlash could be put to positive use. The Populists were widely dismissed by the genteel intellectuals of the Northeast as backward and dangerous, and indeed some of their attitudes were far from laudable by the standards of both their day and ours. Yet many of the reforms they advanced were later embraced and defended by the intellectuals who championed the New Deal and played a key role (through Roosevelt’s “brain trust” and in the universities) in formulating its politics. Populists made important contributions to the democratization of American politics—something that made many in the intellectual class decidedly uncomfortable.

Different forms of anti-intellectualism have different purposes and different roots, and there is a danger in mistaking genuinely democratic impulses for wholesale assaults on the life of the mind.

Defending the legitimate claims of intellectual life requires accepting that the backlash against it in our time cannot simply be written off as a popular celebration of mindlessness. It is of a piece with a more general frustration with elites following decades of globalization, deindustrialization, and rising inequality. The policies that produced these outcomes, advanced by technocrats, think tanks, and politicians in both parties, damaged communities around the country—particularly in the Midwest states critical to the outcome of the 2016 election, but also in parts of solidly blue America—while often failing to deliver their promised benefits.

Whatever one thinks about free trade policies, it is hard to deny that, in combination with technological change, they have imposed substantial and unequally shared costs. The costs have been borne disproportionately by those, in inner cities no less than in Midwestern towns, shut out of a decision-making process largely confined to the wealthy, powerful corporations, and intellectual elites, especially economists.

Current expressions of anti-intellectualism are in part a response to this frustration, and they contain the possibility, at least, of making democratic politics more responsive to those left behind. Impatience with intellectuals thus needs to be distinguished from outright opposition to the intellectual project. The former can advance liberal and social democracy. The latter is a threat to both. Attacks on free expression are fundamentally different from a healthy skepticism of intellectuals (on all sides of politics) who distance themselves from the struggles of their societies and from the insights of popular culture and popular religion. Intellectuals as a class are no more immune from criticism in a free society than any other class.

The recent focus on issues of speech and political bias on college campuses heightens the importance of getting these issues right. There are reasons to critique the Ivory Tower mentality that exists in some colleges, shielding academics from having to engage with anyone outside their professional class. Student activists in the 1960s and 1970s targeted this intellectual isolation by making campuses more accessible to individuals from traditionally marginalized communities and creating new fields of study, like African-American studies, to consider histories and perspectives most academics previously ignored. Contemporary efforts to break down the walls separating academia from the outside world help to ensure that intellectualism promotes the values of equality and inclusion, which are fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.


Drawing distinctions among the types and purposes of anti-intellectualism will, paradoxically, strengthen rather than weaken the case for free inquiry, legitimate expertise, and the use of scientific data. For the greatest threat to all three is not from some inchoate reaction among the masses rooted in religious fundamentalism (a major target of Hofstadter’s) or in some blind hatred of the learned. It is from interests threatened by legitimate expertise and actual facts—the oil and gas industries that want to deny climate change; those who make unsupportable claims for the social benefits of tax cuts; and opponents of consumer, environmental, health, and safety regulations who want to deny the provable harms and costs of behaviors that regulators seek to curb.

In our era, it is to a large extent not “the people” who lead the battle against intellectuals and the expertise they proffer. It is those who fear that their profits might be reduced or that their freedom of action might be curbed, even if the actions they contemplate have antisocial consequences.

The danger of our current political moment is not anti-intellectualism arising from the poor or the working and middle classes, but something more pernicious: the way outright lies and a denial of basic facts have permeated our national dialogue—beginning at the very top of the political system. This flight from truth has been encouraged by significant parts of the conservative political and economic elite and by a president committed to an ideological project that itself damages the interests of working Americans.

This is where another critique of intellectuals, offered by Irving Kristol, the father of neoconservatism, is instructive. Writing in the 1970s, Kristol saw the potential of defending one elite, the leaders of corporate capitalism, by rallying opposition to another elite that he labeled “the new class.” It was a rather sprawling category. “We are talking,” he wrote, “about scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communications industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on.” So on indeed!

What did the new class seek? Kristol was clear: “They are not much interested in money but are keenly interested in power. . . . the power to shape our civilization—a power which, in a capitalist system, is supposed to reside in the free market. The ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed to government. . . .”

Ultimately, in this moment of lies and anti-intellectualism, what must be defended is the life of the mind, not any particular class that might be labeled “intellectual.

Kristol opened the way for the corporate anti-intellectualism that is now so important in our politics. Progressives and intellectuals should pay attention. To the extent that intellectuals defend themselves as a class, an interest group, or a guild entitled to special protection, they are confirming arguments like Kristol’s that their main preoccupation is with their own power, influence, and status. Intellectuals are not entitled to special privileges, and “intellectualism” should not be seen as a superior way of life. But the intellectual project, involving the search for truth and understanding with some independence from the pressures of both the state and the market, must be defended. And it is a project that citizens who do not have any formal status in the academy or think tanks can join.

Intellectuals are integral to the battle against falsehood, but they need to work as part of a broad democratic enterprise involving citizens of every background who are concerned about what Trump and his cronies’ systematic denigration of facts means for the vitality of our democracy. There is no magical political strategy for building this coalition, and in the range of priorities for progressives, this would not rank as a central cause.


But anti-intellectualism is often a symptom of a larger problem: many of those engaged in academic and policy work have lost a sense of obligation to connect what they do to the daily struggles of ordinary people.

There was once a rich and interactive relationship between intellectuals and unions, which ran robust education and discussion programs with workers. New Deal cultural programs involving writers, artists, and playwrights were closely linked to local communities and reflected a deep respect for U.S. workers. The National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibit The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers reflected this concept.

Where they hold political power, progressives should use offices dedicated to the arts, culture, and the humanities to demystify the work of intellectuals and encourage broad participation in cultural production. The point, of course, is not to revive a socialist realist attitude toward culture. But neither can progressives ignore the right’s attempts to use social and cultural issues as a way to pit working people and intellectuals against each other. In 2015 the National Endowment for the Humanities launched an initiative called “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square,” which funded academic work with special relevance to the wider public. Policies like this can help Americans of all backgrounds feel connected to and invested in the intellectual project.

Members of the intellectual class also must do more to bridge the divide between academia and the wider world. Many universities have recently begun to experiment with free, online courses, ensuring that the dialogue taking place on campus is accessible to a wider audience. But too often, programs of this kind hinge on a unidirectional model in which academic scholarship is repackaged for the outside world, as well as problematic assumptions about the availability of internet access in low-income and working-class communities. It is necessary for the intellectual process itself to be transformed through genuine cross-class alliances.

The current revitalization of progressive social movements presents an opportunity to advance this goal. As teachers go on strike for better wages, as black Americans protest police violence and mass incarceration, and as young people lead a renewed call for reform to gun laws, sympathetic intellectuals have a responsibility not only to study these movements but also to be engaged in them as participants. They must demonstrate that they care about injustice as a lived reality as well as a subject for intellectual inquiry.

Ultimately in this moment of lies and anti-intellectualism, what must be defended is the life of the mind, not any particular class that might be labeled “intellectual.” What must be preserved is the right to dissent, not any subset of dissenters who happen to have advanced degrees. What must be nurtured is a public debate rooted in respect for racial and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ people, low-income and working-class people, and Americans of all backgrounds deprived of opportunity and power. What must be fostered is the exchange of ideas, whether inside the academy or outside its walls.

Of course, intellectuals are essential to this work, and their engagement with it might at times make them unpopular. But intellectuals will better protect their claims in solidarity with their fellow citizens who have an equal right to express their views. This is true even of citizens who are not particularly fond of intellectuals.

Adam Waters is a PhD student in the history department at Yale University.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a university professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a columnist for the Washington Post.

Parts of this article are drawn, with substantial revisions, from a lecture Dionne gave in March 2018 at the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C.

Lampton | University of California Press Linebaugh