Some months ago, one of my freshmen year roommates, who remains a friend and regular reader, suggested that I take a look at Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter was the greatest historian of the GI generation, and his death, in his early 50s, in the early 1970s was a great tragedy for our intellectual ilfe. He had a grasp of all of American history--indeed, he had started a general history of the US, a few chapters of which were published after his death--and he was fascinated by the disconnects between political rhetoric and what was actually happening in different areas. This particular book, written in the 1960s, only went up to the 1960s, and I am not going to do it anything like justice this morning, but the latter half of the book, from the civil war until the middle of the last century, seemed to me particularly relevant in light of current events.
Hofstadter suggested that there had always been a wide gap between educated Americans and the average man (or woman) in our culture, but he identified ebbs and flows. Never, he suggested, was the gap wider than in the post-civil war period. The war had united moralistic intellectuals with the common people, and the North had achieved its short-term objectives of restoring the union and the abolition of slavery. But Hofstadter effectively makes the point that to the New England elite, in particular, the war seemed to have brought little if any greater good within 12 years of its completion. Not only had the end of Reconstruction left former slaves in a new form of subjugation, but northern politics was now dominated by corporate corruption and big-city bosses. Civil service reform--the selection of public officials by merit--became the reformers' principal cause, but was violently opposed by politicians exalting the common man over the effeminate bookworm. (Present day historians would have you believe that only Boomers discovered the significance of gender in history, but that is clearly not the case.) Only the murder of President Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker started the country down the path to a professional civil service, and it was a very modest step. The corporate elite that ruled the country seemed to enjoy the idea that the common man knew best, and the first politician to begin to reverse the trend was the Harvard educated amateur historian, Theodore Roosevelt, whose elevation to the Presidency was, of course, pretty much of an accident. By 1900, however the new Missionary generation (born 1863-84) was voting. It was very well educated and believed in the use of the intellect to better society. In 1912 Roosevelt and former college president and historian Woodrow Wilson won a huge majority of the popular between them, and Wilson took office and presided over the first Reform Administration. As I have said before, there is indeed a logic to Glenn Beck's demonization of Progressivism in general and Woodrow Wilson in particular.
The First World War discredited Wilson and Progressivism for a decade, but Herbert Hoover was certainly a representative of this new tradition, and under the New Deal it really came into its own. It aroused violent opposition among many well-to-do Americans, but the mass of the people welcomed FDR's scientific and inspiring approach to the problems the country faced, and the idea of government as problem-solver remained entrenched for nearly half a century--the most remarkable half century, I would argue, in the whole history of American political life. By the 1970s, however, the alliance between academics and government was crumbling. Now it is just about dead, and are very close, in our own way, to where the country was on these issues during the Gilded Age.
From at least the time of Ronald Reagan onward the Republican Party has been frankly and openly anti-intellectual, railing against Washington bureaucrats who think they know what is best for the average American, and particularly against the mainstream media, which they have seen as dominated by an educated elite. An interesting trend began with Reagan: when the educated elite derided his intellectual ability, his supporters turned this into an advantage. No one could have dreamt then, however, how far this trend would go. Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell have given new meaning to the idea that dumber is better. (O'Donnell isn't going to be elected, but Palin's career is far from over.) And one very influential part of the intellectual elite--neoconservatives--have actually jumped on this bandwagon. When I mentioned this to a well-known centrist Republican two years ago, he remarked that neoconservatives clearly preferred candidates of limited vision, such as George W. Bush, so that they could fill in gaps on their blank slates. Bill Kristol met Palin on a necon cruise to Alaska a year or two before the 2008 elections and, apparently, fell in love.
And thus, today, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, the simplest arithmetical facts make absolutely no impression upon the body politic. Today's papers report that we lost jobs last month because of a big drop in state and local government employment--which up until now had been helped by the Obama stimulus. Stimulus, however, has become a dirty word, and there will be no new one any time soon. As Paul Krugman eloquently pointed out yesterday, Governor Christie of New Jersey--a hero to his fellow Times columnist David Brooks--made one of the stupidest decisions in American history by canceling a plan for a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson, a desperately needed piece of infrastructure that would have put many, many people to work. (Today's paper says that Christie, thank heaven, is trying to find a way to reverse that decision.) When the media attack Tea Party candidates for obvious mistatements--Sharon Angle, who is likely to defeat Harry Reid in Nevada, just said Sharia law now governs Dearborn, Michigan--they retort that the media doesn't want to debate the real issues, like taxes. And for the moment, at least, it seems that all this would work.
Meanwhile, something else has happened: the academy--particularly the Humanities, including history, and the social sciences--lost interest in the use of knowledge to better society and in particular the lot of the average man. It turned inward, creating a species of scholarship as removed from the world as Medieval scholasticism. In so doing it has done much to confirm the anti-intellectualism of the right. To have its ideas respected, the academy will have to attack the problems of the general public.
Krugman said the other day that he could find little reason for hope, and I can't either--not for a long time, anyway. I have been pointing out parallels between the Gilded Age and our own time for some time. If these are accurate, then salvation will only come from a generation as yet unborn, the new Prophet generation that will enter elementary school when our current crisis is definitely over. (And "over" does not mean that things will have gotten better, only that we have effectively given up on any significant changes.) The Missionary generation, the subject of my current research, reshaped the nation and the world in ways that the Gilded Age could never have dreamed of. Boomers have undone their work and it does not seem that there will be any Boomer savior to reverse the trend. History, however, lasts a long time. It is time for me now to quote another passage from Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, a passage about Stendhal, who wrote in the Restoration period after the French revolution and the Napoleonic era, a time when reaction seemed to be in the ascendant all over Europe.
"In French literature," Lukacs writes, "Stendhal is the last great representative of the heroic ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His criticism of the present, his picture of the past rest essentially on this critical contrasting of the two great phases of bourgeois society. The implacable nature of this criticism has its roots in the living experience of the past heroic period and in the unshaken belief--despite all skepticism--that the development of history will yet lead to a renewal of this great period."
And so it will again, no matter how many or how few of us live to see it. I would like to think that, somehow, Krugman might see this post.