The Tea Party is timeless

Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism In American Life reviewed

For the ages For Hofstadter, pictured here in 1946, anti-intellectualism was an unavoidable part of a democratic society. (Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos)

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life doesn’t seem like a catchy title, but, more than 50 years on, it has demonstrated a peculiar staying power: When somebody mentions “anti-intellectualism,” Richard Hofstadter’s book usually comes to mind as the place where the problem was defined. That may be every author’s dream, but for purposes of understanding the book it is also perilous. If you haven’t read the book—which is forgivable; it’s very long and dense—then you may assume that Hofstadter argues that anti-intellectualism is a threat to the authentic best in the American tradition, and that he thinks of it as a problem that can be solved, so that the country can have the flourishing intellectual culture and enriched public life it deserves. Not true.

In case you don’t know him, Hofstadter was one of the very greatest American historians, and also, in his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the leading public intellectuals. Most academic writers cannot achieve the trifecta of scholarly importance, popularity outside the academy, and unquestioned intellectual integrity. Hofstadter did. He was born in 1916, and as a young man he had the standard flirtation with Communism of intellectuals of his generation. He briefly joined the Communist Party USA. By the time Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published (1963), he was a mainstream liberal, not a radical. In the final pages in the book he seems to catch a whiff of the coming of the student radicalism of the sixties, and he doesn’t like it. After the 1968 student strike at Columbia University, his academic home, he disliked it intensely. It isn’t clear where Hofstadter would have wound up politically, because he died in 1970, at the age of 54.

He left behind an astonishingly large and broad body of work. Somewhere or other he wrote about nearly every period in American history. He was able to do this partly because he didn’t do much of the historical equivalent of a journalist’s original reporting—slogging through primary records and documents in archives. Instead, his research was mainly done by reading published works, which he seems to have done so copiously and with such deep understanding that the entirety of American intellectual history was stored in some instantly accessible place inside his head.

To Hofstadter, intellectualism is not at all the same as intelligence. It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance we often associate with very smart people.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published in the sixties, but before “the sixties” as we understand the term were in full swing; it’s more usefully understood as a product of the fifties. In 1952, Partisan Review, then the most prestigious and influential American intellectual magazine, published a world-rocking (among intellectuals) series of essays under the title “Our Country and Our Culture.” During the first half of the 20th century, American intellectuals had been mainly dissenters and critics. Whether it was a conservative purveyor of cultural bombast like H.L. Mencken, a liberal chronicler of the vapidity of Midwestern life like Sinclair Lewis, or a radical critic of capitalism and business like Thorstein Veblen—these are three of hundreds of possible examples—there was a unifying tone of disapproval of mainstream American life in most intellectual and artistic production. Many American writers and artists expatriated themselves. (A word on terminology: Some intellectuals are journalists, and some journalists are intellectuals, but either way the subcategory is a minority of the larger category. The kind of boosterism that most intellectuals abhorred was a dominant strain in the commercial journalism of the first half of the 20th century.)

So it was big news when the editors of Partisan Review announced that “For better or for worse, most writers no longer accept alienation as the artist’s fate in America; on the contrary, they want very much to be a part of American life.” The context was that the United States had led a successful effort to rid the world of an existential menace. Europe, which American intellectuals traditionally preferred to their own country, lay in ruins. It was no longer possible for an honest thinking person to believe in Communism as a superior alternative to our own system, however flawed it was. America was prosperous, free, and vibrant—even, much of the time, as regards scholars and artists. It was beginning to seem silly for intellectuals to continue portraying the national project in the customary dark hues.

But also in 1952, McCarthyism, which was anti-intellectual both explicitly and implicitly through its choice of victims, was at its apogee. In that year’s presidential election, intellectuals, very much including Hofstadter, had been crushed by the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, whom they adored, by Dwight Eisenhower, whom they despised. (Today not many people, including intellectuals, have as high an opinion of Stevenson or as low an opinion of Eisenhower, but this was in fact the intellectual mood of the moment.) So, Partisan Review or no, all was not entirely well between America and its intellectuals. A sorting-out of the situation was called for, and Hofstadter took on the task.

Anti-Intellectualism in America is the work of a great mind, but it isn’t a great book. It’s too meandering and episodic; it doesn’t tell one story or make one argument. Nonetheless it is a dazzling experience to be taken on a grand tour by Hofstadter that covers, surefootedly, characters from John Dewey to Billy Sunday, from Davy Crockett to Henry Adams, from Jonathan Edwards to Woodrow Wilson. Hofstadter definitely does not see anti-intellectualism as the corrupting serpent in the American Eden. Instead, as he demonstrates, it has been deeply ingrained in the national culture from the very beginning. In Hofstadter’s view, there have been only two cohorts of intellectuals who have been able to set the overall tone for the country, the Puritan ministers and the Founding Fathers, but both had relatively brief heydays. Of the many forces arrayed against intellectualism, Hofstadter returns most often to evangelical religion—an almost constantly strong influence through all of American history—and business, especially the cheerleading tendency in business that produces the enthusiastic type Hofstadter calls the “hundred percenter.” Education, the main institutional countervailing force to anti-intellectualism, has been continually invaded by anti-intellectual ideas, especially the idea that practical training should take precedence over book-learning, and the idea that schools should attend more closely to the emotional well-being of their students than to their instruction. Of course both these ideas are still very much with us today.

It helps in understanding Hofstadter to know what he takes intellectualism to mean. Here is a passage that comes as close as any in the book to a definition:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

In other words, to Hofstadter, intellectualism is not at all the same thing as intelligence or devotion to a particular set of ideas. It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter. Being himself an exemplar of his conception of the intellectual, he saw the essential problem that is the subject of the book as being an unresolvable tension between intellectualism and democracy:

Anti-intellectualism . . . is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

Because Hofstadter does confront the conflict candidly, he winds up in a very small category. It’s interesting to think of him in contrast to, for example, Walter Lippmann, who wrestled with the same problem for years and wound up becoming more and more unsympathetic to democracy. Hofstadter’s position is far more morally attractive, because it acknowledges the appeal of both sides and proposes a continual struggle between them, rather than the establishment of an American version of Plato’s Republic. That has the advantages of descriptive accuracy, and of realism. Hofstadter’s lesson is that those who oppose anti-intellectualism should conceive of their lives as a struggle that will never conclude in victory but that also need not ever end in total defeat.

Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life.

Another way in which Hofstadter’s framing of the issue is useful is on the question of intellectuals and power. Two categories related to “intellectual” that he discusses are “bohemians” and “experts.” One could think of the first as being made up of people who have chosen to preserve their intellectual integrity by living entirely outside what Hofstadter calls “accredited institutions”; the second is made up of people with specialized knowledge that they have chosen to put at the service of people in power. Each side thinks of the location it has chosen as the only defensible one, but Hofstadter, typically, prefers to think of what will inevitably be an uncomfortable balance between the two as ideal: “We are opposed almost by instinct to the divorce of knowledge from power, but we are also opposed, out of our modern convictions, to their union.” Though proximity to power can corrupt intellectuals’ integrity, Hofstadter insists that too much distance from power can be corrupting, too, because one’s ideas don’t get tested. So, once again, equipoise, compromise, and nuance are required.

If Hofstader could see America 50 years after Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published, what would he think? Much of what American intellectuals these days seem to find shocking would not surprise Hofstadter in the slightest—for example, the Tea Party movement, or people who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases, or the idea of paying schoolteachers on the basis of numerical measures of how well they confer skills to their students. Similar movements began appearing in the early 19th century and have never gone away. History is an essential corrective to the impulse to see the controversies of the present as uniquely vexing.

Hofstadter did not foresee everything, though. He almost entirely missed the importance of the civil rights movement and feminism, not just historically, but also intellectually. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter took pains to mention moments, like the Progressive era and the New Deal, when ideas from the intellectual world manifested themselves broadly in national culture and politics. But he hardly mentioned the significant intellectual movements in support of rights for African-Americans and women, and he mostly ignored the rebirth of these movements at the time he was writing. If he had been writing 10 or even five years later, he could not have neglected civil rights and feminism as thoroughly as he did. These movements transformed Hofstadter’s own discipline—scholarly production on race, ethnicity, and gender has soared, and on the other hand not many of the leading American historians are working in the Hofstadter vein today—as well as the work of scholars in the humanities and social sciences more broadly. Even more important, Hofstadter, subtle as he was, was writing from the assumption that American life could be fully understood without reference to ethnic, racial, or gender categories. One could say that Hofstadter’s work was prescient in conceiving of conflict as essential to American culture, but that he defined the main lines of conflict quite differently from the way most historians and intellectuals would define them today.

Another notable absence in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is intellectual conservatism. There were conservative intellectuals when Hofstadter was writing, whom he overlooked—think of Frank Meyer or Russell Kirk—and after he died a branch of the American right emerged that conceived of itself as being distinct from the left not just ideologically, but also for being more intellectually serious, less prone to easy bromides. Think of Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind; his friend Saul Bellow; Donald Kagan, the Yale historian; Robert Bork, the law professor and judge; Milton and Rose Friedman, the economists; or Jeane Kirkpatrick, the political scientist. These people, and their allies in government and in opinion journalism, helped turn intellectual conservatism into such highly consequential policies as supply-side economics, deregulation, originalism in constitutional law, and neoconservative foreign policy. The long Reagan-dominated period in American history would have been impossible without conservative intellectuals; an update of Hofstadter might argue with intellectual conservatism, but it could not treat American intellectualism as being entirely liberal.

Hofstadter saw business as the dominant element in American culture. That hasn’t changed. He painted business culture in Babbitt hues—go-go, unreflective—and it might surprise him that today, much of the most visible section of American business prides itself on its braininess. Everybody from technology tycoons to Wall Street derivatives traders and hedge fund managers to management consultants takes pains to appear intellectual, even if, by Hofstadter’s lights, they actually aren’t. Business tycoons, from their initial rise after the Civil War up to Hofstadter’s day, certainly celebrated themselves and found others to celebrate them. But the celebration was more of their being forceful and commanding, or meticulously well-organized, or charismatic and persuasive, than of their intellectual gifts. A present-day Hofstadter would have to confront the question of whether business is a locus of intellectual life, in a way that Hofstadter did not feel he had to.

It’s likely that Hofstadter would have considered this category of people in business to be what he called “experts,” who also have intellectual pretensions. And in the last 50 years the presence of experts in and around government has also soared. Some parts of government are more expert-dominated than they were in Hofstadter’s day, like the Federal Reserve system (now run more by academic economists than by bankers) or the National Security Council (which has a large staff of PhDs), or the federal judiciary (with its army of highly educated law clerks). Some are new since Hofstadter’s time, like the Congressional Budget Office or the Centers for Disease Control. The think-tank sector has grown, too, so have policy institutes in universities, and journalism has become generally more expert-friendly, both in whom it employs and whom it covers.

Just as it’s tempting, if you don’t know the history, to fall into the view that anti-intellectualism is a threatening new development, it can also be tempting to believe the opposite: that intellectuals have now assumed their rightful place of power and respect in American society. (A related idea is that the United States has become a “meritocracy.”) Hofstadter’s book is valuable as a guard against the second temptation as well as the first. Anti-intellectualism has always been with us, and always will be; that isn’t shameful, because it’s an aspect of our being a democracy. Conversely, intellectualism should be inherently uncomfortable, not triumphant. Experts, Hofstadter reminds us, have been important since early in the 20th century, but to point out that our complex society increasingly needs people who are intelligent and have formal technical education to staff government and business is not the same thing as saying that the United States has a rich intellectual life. Experts try to dwell in the realm of rigorously derived knowledge and facts. Intellectuals dwell in the much more difficult realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification, and where contention, contradiction, and uncertainty are inescapable. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life. If you ever begin to think of American life as a struggle between the superior, enlightened few and the mass of yobs, pick up Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It ought to cure you.

Nicholas Lemann is Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and a staff writer for The New Yorker This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "The American way."