Just the right kind of stupid

Rick Santorum's attack on "smart people" has its roots in centuries-old elite bashing. And it often works

Published September 17, 2012 2:45PM (EDT)

If the core ideology of conservative politics in America could be reduced to a sentence, it would be something like this:  The right kind of stupidity is preferable to the wrong sort of expertise.

This is illustrated nicely by a speech  former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave this weekend at the Values Voter Summit. Santorum understands that the key emotion that fuels the Republican base is resentment -- and in particular resentment at having their beliefs mocked by the biased Mainstream Media, and the decadent Hollywood blasphemers, and the all smarty-pants professors high up in their ivory towers, etc.:

"We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country.  We will never have the elite smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.  So our colleges and universities, they’re not going to be on our side."

Santorum is of course being sardonic: He’s not really arguing that intelligence disqualifies people from being political conservatives.  Rather, he’s stoking the resentment of the people who make up the GOP base. He’s doing so while drawing implicitly on two classic anti-intellectual arguments, which have been much favored by conservative intellectuals over the past couple of centuries.

The first of these is that intellectuals aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. (It’s telling that in American political life the very word “intellectual” might as well be an insult, and anyone who uses it is practically required to employ adjectival modifier “so-called.”  I much prefer the 19th century legal term “brain toiler.” )

From Edmund Burke and Walter Bagehot, to Michael Oakeshott and Paul Johnson, conservative philosophers and polemicists have attacked the intellectual hubris of the modern intellectual, so-called, who thinks he knows better than you do how your children should be raised and educated, how your money should be spent, how your government should be run, and so on and so forth.

In one sense the entire ideology of contemporary conservative politics is one sustained wail of protest against experts and bureaucrats and other statistics-wielding busybodies, who are always trying to undermine certain self-evident truths, such as that America is the greatest country the world has ever seen, because it has embraced Christianity (modified tactfully in recent decades to “our Judeo-Christian heritage”) and the free enterprise system.

Now this is a fairly stupid belief, but to conservative intellectuals, to point to a belief’s stupidity is not necessarily to criticize it. This proposition was defended most straightforwardly by Bagehot, who praised the virtues of “stupidity” (by which he meant the unreflective beliefs of the average man), and who claimed the ideal statesman was a leader of “common opinions and uncommon abilities.”

This is why Ronald Reagan is the icon of contemporary conservatism:  The fact that he saw the world in black-and-white terms (America: Good; America’s enemies: Bad) was not, from the perspective of conservative ideology, a weakness, but rather one of his greatest strengths.   Leave the “nuance” and the “complexity” to the decadent, relativistic elites, whose decadent relativism has left them incapable of embracing patriotism, or religious belief, or the traditional family, or anything else that has made America the greatest country the world has ever seen.

Santorum’s attack on “elite smart people” is just the latest installment in a series that, in the history of the contemporary GOP, goes back at least as far as Richard Nixon’s praise of the “silent majority,” and his vice president’s wildly popular attacks on “the nattering nabobs of negativism.”  (Spiro Agnew was also famous for claiming that “an intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.”)

Such attacks both draw upon and feed the rich strain of populist resentment that dominates cultural conservatism in America today.  For instance, when liberals recoil in horror at the aggressive ignorance of a Sarah Palin they’re missing the point. That someone like Palin has the intellectual sophistication of a moderately well-read 12-year-old is, in the eyes of her millions of fans, just another reason to prefer her to the “elitist” brain toilers.

By Paul Campos

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Anti-intellectualism Edward Burke Rick Santorum Sarah Palin