Eggheads, experts and elites in U.S. politics

My friend Michael J. Brown, an assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology, has written an interesting and important book entitled HOPE & SCORN: Eggheads, Experts and Elites in American Politics.

It consists of profiles of seven leading American intellectuals of the past 70 years, along with sidebars and cameos of many others.  Michael tells how they saw their roles as intellectuals and how they influenced, or failed to influence, American pubic life.

This is a significant topic.  Everybody in politics operates from a basic framework of ideas, whether they’re aware of it or not.  All our ideas and ideals about politics have their origin with some particular person, be that person Aristotle, Malcolm X or someone we’ve never heard of.  

The process by which ideas spread, or fail to spread, from individual thinkers to leaders or a general public is important to understand.

Michael Brown’s book is especially interesting to me because it is a counterpoint to another book I like, Thomas Frank’s The People, No, which is a critique of the “professional managerial class” (a.k.a. eggheads, experts and elites).

I like and agree with Thomas Frank and wish his books were more widely read.  But I have to admit that his latest book, in the interest of brevity and readability, skips over a lot of things and makes sweeping generalizations. 

In contrast, Michael Brown is more interested in exploring his topic and less interested in making a point.  He presents his characters in all their complexity and nuance, and pretty much leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Another reason the book is interesting to me is that I am in my 80s and have a living memory of the controversies Michael described.

Michael Brown begins his book with the defeat of Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the original “egghead,” in the 1952 Presidential election.  But was his defeat due to anti-intellectualism?

Consider.  Stevenson’s opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was virtually invincible.  As the former Supreme Commander of the Anglo-American forces in World War Two, he had such prestige that, if he had not chosen to run as a Republican, he could have had the Democratic nomination for the asking.  Stevenson, though honest and capable, did not have a chance.

My teenage bookworm self was impressed with Stevenson’s eloquent, literate self, but I see now that he was a defender of the status quo.  The reform candidate was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose trademark was his corny coonskin cap.  Kefauver fought business monopoly and advocated consumer protection against unsafe products and prescription drugs that didn’t work.  He swept such Democratic primaries as then existed, but the party bosses, including Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, gave the Democratic nomination to Stevenson.


I was a college student in the 1950s.  I read and admired The American Political Tradition (1948) and The Age of Reform (1955) by the historian Richard Hofstadter, the first intellectual profiled in Michael’s book. 

The underlying theme of Hofstadter’s books was that the supposedly great champions of the common people in American history were neither as great nor as democratic as commonly thought. 

Thomas Frank sees Hofstadter’s work as the intellectual seed of the backlash against New Deal liberalism and small-p populism.  I did not worry about this at the time because I did not foresee the possibility of any such backlash.

We campus liberals in the 1950s were not concerned about economic justice, because most of us thought of this as a solved problem.  We worried about threats to political and intellectual freedom, as represented by Communism and fascism abroad and McCarthyism and anti-black racism at home. 

These concerns were reflected in Hofstadter’s last book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).  I never got around to reading it.  It may have been Hofstadter’s best book and the one most relevant to Michael’s study.

Hofstadter thought that two of the main sources of anti-intellectualism in American life were evangelical Protestantism, which values faith and religious experience more than scholarship and theology, and the culture of business, which values practical knowledge over book knowledge.  Over and above that, the idea of democracy is that every person’s judgment carries the same weight as any other’s.

The great need, he thought, was for intellectuals and experts to be protected from outside pressures while they did their work.   His attitude, like my own in that era, was defensive, which is to say, conservative.


The next chapter is about H. Stuart Hughes, a Harvard historian who believed that intellectuals had a responsibility to share their ideas with a wider public.  He ran for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1962 as a way to promote nuclear arms control. 

Like Stevenson, whom he had supported, he didn’t have a chance.  His opponents in the Democratic primary included Ted Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, and Eddie McCormack, state attorney-general and nephew of House Speaker John McCormack.

Hughes candidacy raised two important questions, according to Michael Brown.  One was whether the duty of the intellectual in politics was to persuade voters to accept his ideas, or to try to win at the cost of compromising or hiding his ideas. 

The other is whether leading the intellectual life cuts you off from the non-intellectual public.  Hughes appeared to see blue collar voters almost as if they were part of a foreign culture, rather than fellow Americans who happened to make a living in a different way from him.  This wasn’t unique to him.


Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Noam Chomsky represent opposing views about the relation of the individual to government.  Schlesinger was a part of the Kennedy administration, and saw his role as offering wise counsel to government.  Chomsky saw his role as to stand outside as a prophetic moral critic.

I read Schlesinger’s histories of Jacksonian democracy, the New Deal, JFK’s administration and RFK’s life, as well as The Vital Center, his attack on extremism of the right or left.  I liked all his books, but The Age of Jackson was the only one that contained any original insight.  All of the celebrated American democracy and the Democratic Party—in other words, the status quo of the time. 

President John F. Kennedy projected an image of respect for excellence, including intellectual excellence.  But he and his inner circle were not idealistic reformers.  Many, like JFK himself, were war veterans.  They saw themselves as engaged in a global duel with the Soviet Union in which moral rules sometimes had to be put aside for the sake of results. 

Schlesinger and Adlai Stevenson were brought into their administration as window dressing.  Far from influencing policy, they let themselves be co-opted into lending their prestige into justifying it. 

Noam Chomsky would have none of this.  Military aggression and atrocities are crimes, no matter who commits them, he wrote.  Intellectuals such as Schlesinger who enable and justify crimes are guilty of those crimes. 

Schlesinger thought the USA embodied democracy and freedom, and for this reason was entitled to fight dirty.  Chomsky denied this.  In the 1960s, I agreed with Schlesinger.  Like him, I saw Vietnam as a blunder, not a crime.

It took me literally decades to open myself to Chomsky’s argument.  I see now that if Chomsky’s advice had been followed, the United States would be more secure and more respected than it is now.  The moral course would have been the expedient course.


Next up is Christopher Lasch.  A historian, like Hofstadter, Hughes and Schlesinger, Lasch was a radical in his political and economic beliefs, but very traditional in morals and culture, although without, so far as I know, committing to the creed of any particular religion.

Lasch was highly critical of American intellectuals without, as Michael Brown pointed out, having a consistent idea of what an intellectual should be.  Should intellectuals confine themselves to scholarly work or join movements for social reform?  Should they try to change the structure of society or the attitudes of ordinary people?

He pointed out that intellectuals themselves were becoming an elite.  The life of a tenured college professor was a comfortable life and, in the age of mass public education, open to more and more people. 

I didn’t read Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996), published right after his death, but, according to reviewers, he accused both the USA’s wealthy elites and its educated elites of turning their backs on the common people.

He foreshadowed the work of Thomas Piketty in Capital and Ideology, who showed through research into voting behavior that politics in the USA, UK and France is becoming a conflict between the two kinds of elites.  He calls one the Merchant Right, whose power derives from wealth, and the other the Brahmin Left, whose power derives from educational credentials and positions in organizations.


Irving Kristol is possibly the most successful of the seven major intellectuals described in Hope & Scorn.  He is only one to gain eminence through journalism rather than an academic career. 

Kristol was the intellectual critic of intellectuals.  He said that American intellectuals were becoming more influential because they were embedded in the emerging highly-educated professional-managerial class.  At the same time, he said that they see their mission as critics and thereby undermine capitalism, even though that system, in his view, is objectively better than all its rivals.

Of course Kristol was a critic, too, but of intellectuals themselves, not of society as a whole.  He was a traitor to his class, so to speak.  Intellectuals are a small part of the professional-managerial class, as Michael Brown noted, but because this class is defined by its educational credentials, it is the ecology in which intellectual beliefs spread. 

He advised capitalists to defend themselves by creating their own intellectual infrastructure—endowed professorships, research institutes, intellectual magazines—to offset the left-wing intellectuals.  Long story short, the capitalists followed Kristol’s advice and they created the intellectual climate of today.

This is not due to Kristol alone.  Others had the same idea, including William Rehnquist, the future Chief Justice, in a famous memo to the United States.  And other countries have followed the same path, not just the USA.  But there is widespread acceptance of the basic idea of neoliberalism, which is that the most valuable members of society are the owners of capital.


The last up is Cornel West, whose ideas of the intellectual mission are the most extensive of the seven major figures in this book.  An African-American, West said the duty of black intellectuals is to be champions of their people and, at the same time, be mentors and critics of their people.   They should meet the highest academic standards and, at the same time, reach out to the common people by participating in popular culture.

This is very like the role of intellectuals in subjugated or oppressed countries.  It is also like the black Christian church tradition at its best.  West’s ideals seem very difficult to live up to, but he deserves credit for trying.

I read West’s Race Matters (1994) and thought it pretentious and obscure.  But I admire his fearless and independent political judgments.  When Barack Obama was elected, West told “Brother Obama” that he would spend on day celebrating the symbolic importance of his victory, and the rest of the time holding him responsible for carrying out his promises.


Michael J. Brown

Michael Brown closes his book with a note about Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the 2016 election.  In 2008, he, like Adlai Stevenson, ran against a war hero, but, unlike Stevenson, Obama won.

But eight years later, voters elected Donald Trump, who presented himself as the exact opposite of Obama—vulgar rather than cultured, cynical rather than idealistic, emotional rather than rational, anti-science and anti-expert. 

As I write this, the votes are still being counted in the 2020 Presidential election.  It seems possible that Trump will win a second term.  Does this show Americans are fundamentally anti-intellectual after all?  Or does the present state of the union reflect elite failure—especially the failure of the neoliberals?

Give Obama credit where credit is due.  As with Adlai Stevenson, his deeds did not match his words, but he was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, who appealed to America’s best ideals.  This is something.

Michael Brown ends his book by quoting Obama on good citizenship, and remarks that the duties of the intellectual in politics are the same as the duties of the citizen—to inform oneself on the issues, and try as best one can to make an impartial judgment of the public good.  The difference is that the intellectual, by reason of education and vocation, is in a better position to do this.

This is true and important—especially in the age of Donald Trump, who appears to have the superpower of making both his followers and his foes lose their capacity for rational thought.

By his own criteria, Michael is both a good intellectual and a good citizen.  He lives by choice in Rochester, N.Y., the community he grew up in, and takes part in its politics and civic life at the grass-roots level.  I participate with him in a philosophy discussion group.  He almost always has something worthwhile to say, and he converses civilly and fruitfully with people with whom he profoundly disagrees.  I hope to live long enough to read his next book.


In Impeachment spotlight, dueling views of professionalism appear by Michael J. Brown for The Conversation (2019)

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter for Harper’s Magazine (1964).

The Responsibility of Intellectuals by Noam Chomsky for the New York Review of Books (1967)

“When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness”—Some Reflections on Capitalism and “The Free Society” by Irving Kristol for The National Interest. (1970)

We Must Fight the Commodification of Everybody and Everything, an interview of Cornel West for Jacobin magazine.

In the Flower City, Take Root by Michael J. Brown for Dissent Magazine (2010)

A good egghead, messily making omelettes by Michael E. Hartman for The Giving Review.  About Brown’s view of Irving Kristol.

“These dead shall not have died in vain”: COVID’s Gettysburg Moment by Michael J. Brown for the Rochester Beacon.

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