Posts Tagged ‘Intellectuals’

Eggheads, experts and elites in U.S. politics

November 4, 2020

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.

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