Obama: The End of American Anti-Intellectualism?

By Chris Mooney | May 12, 2009 12:57 pm

In the latest New Scientist, I have a commentary piece that places our current president in the context of the long history of American anti-intellectualism, as most famously described by historian Richard Hofstadter in his classic 1964 work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. George W. Bush, as a president, smacked of anti-intellectualism, but Barack Obama couldn’t be more different:

…Bush was widely reviled by intellectuals as precisely the opposite of the kind of person you want running the most powerful country in the world. The Bush administration’s extensively documented attacks on science (discussed in my book The Republican War on Science, among other places), and his exaltation of Jesus as his “favourite philosopher”, further cemented the idea that here was not a mind to be respected. Add to that the malapropisms, the apparent uneasiness with any kind of verbal improvisation, and the scripted debating, and one could easily conclude the US was being governed by the consummate anti-intellectual.

With the coming of Barack Obama to the presidency, the phrase “sea change” is not too strong. Here is a former academic who is deeply familiar with the world of thought. In his inaugural address, Obama pledged to restore science to its “rightful place” in our government; heck, he even extolled the virtue of “curiosity”. And for the first time in history, he has appointed a Nobel laureate to the presidential cabinet. The worm has turned in American life – but for how long?

The article then goes on to discuss whether American anti-intellectualism is cyclic, and if so, how Obama can break the cycle. Hint: He’s off to a pretty good start.

You can read the full piece here.


Comments (22)

  1. Jon

    Science is a very good “wedge” issue against the know-nothing types, because it touches on the practical, technological, professional, which is a growing chunk of the population these days. So while Adalai Stevenson and George McGovern couldn’t make it, times have changed.

    Check out what the authors of the book “Emerging Democratic Majority” have to say about “Professionals” who used to vote Republican in large numbers:


    Their book has some interesting things to say too. Knowledge workers in particular are anti-hierarchical which David Brooks astutely noticed with his talk about Obama as a “flannel-shirted software C.E.O.

    This is the type of thing that has David Frum very concerned:


  2. I don’t know how long it’ll last–but it’s refreshing.

  3. Bill Cavnar

    I believe you meant Richard Hofstadter rather than Douglas. The latter is a cognitive scientist, who also wrote some well-known books, particularly “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. Fortunately, your New Scientist essay refers to the correct Hofstadter.

  4. Gaythia Weis

    Optimism is good! Times are changing. However, I think the battle for acceptance of science and an appreciation of intellectual thought will always need to be waged, and has always needed to be waged. It has no end really.

  5. idiot mistake. fixed.

  6. Jon

    Lawrence Lessig on “independence” (as in the independence of intellects working for the public):

    The Framers of our Constitution were obsessed with the idea of “independence.” Not the “independence” of 1776. Rather, an independence that many feared the people and the Nation had lost by about 1785. “Independence” in the sense of a lack of dependence. The “independent,” as Blackstone put it, has “no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself.” He needn’t conform himself to the will of others. He was free to follow what was right, or just.

    Dependents didn’t have this freedom. Until their “independence,” as Jane Austen often described, sons were not free of the will of their parents. Laborers were tied to the interests of their employers. Magistrates dependent upon the King couldn’t defend rights against the King. In each case, dependency sapped the soul. If not but temporary, it would corrupt. As Jefferson described, dependence “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” It was therefore the Framers’ vision, a “Republican ideal,” that the individual, the representative, and the Nation would be protected from this type of “corruption,” by protecting the individual, the representative, and the Nation against improper dependency.

    The Bush administration very frequently governed in a way diametrically opposed to this ideal. Professional standards didn’t matter, it was what came from the hierarchy that mattered. This clashes with professional values big time. And even now, George Bush’s GOP doesn’t show any signs of turning over a new leaf, and people notice that…


    This world needs people of science as their leaders, don’t you agree?

  8. james wheaton

    Super article. I have a “gut feeling” that the scientific outlook will prevail for a long time. Partly because of the recent implosion of the conservative movement and the Republican party into irrelevance. If the Obama administration’s efforts begin to take hold and more victories are achieved, and I think that will be the case, then despite the denial of said victories by Fox and company and the Republicans, I think the Democratic party will be in for quite a while. Hopefully the Democrats will by and large retain their current posture as the party of reason.

    Unfortunately I see some chinks in the armor on Waxman-Markey where it’s getting resistance from coal/oil state Democrats. You cannot play the compromise game with the climate…..

  9. Jon Winsor

    Sorry, messed up the blockquote tags a bit before…

    Yeah, well written article Chris. Writing about this stuff can be harder than it looks. For instance, I had been trying to convey to people this bit that George Packer explained for weeks. But it was really hard without sounding “intellectual.” When you actually see someone do that successfully, it can look effortless, but it’s not.

  10. Jon Winsor

    It’s interesting that Susan Jacoby’s next book is on the Alger Hiss case:


    The Hiss case has everything. McCarthy, Nixon, the reputation of New Deal liberal intellectuals, conservative anti-communists lined up on the other side… it’s like the beginning of the fault line (although Sam Tanenhaus puts it earlier, in the debates over Roosevelt’s long presidency).

  11. Orson

    SURELY, you must be joking, Mr. Mooney! “Intellectual” seriousness implies honesty – yet President Obama lies so frequently, casually and with impunity, HOW can anyone entertain the comparison?

    It began last year with Obama’s lies disassociating himself with his mentor Rev Wright. As Roger L. Simon later noted:

    Ever since the first sound bites of the execrable Reverend Wright hit the airwaves, it has been obvious that Barack Obama is a less than candid human being. It was impossible to believe that a man who had spent twenty years in Wright’s pews did not have a pretty good idea of the minister’s vile views.
    _ _ _

    Yet when the candidate was confronted by the press about this, he denied knowing about Wright’s excesses and made a speech that was hailed by the media as a monument in race relations equal, some said, to Dr. King.

    It was at that precise moment I knew we were living in a media-constructed lunatic asylum.  That didn’t take a rocket scientist, I can assure you, only someone with a modicum of common sense.  But it only got worse. 

    (And Simon was not the first to say so

    “Worse?” Indeed it has.

    Obama the liar has gotten worse in power, whether it is in speechmaking or in policy formulation.
    (As, for example Charles Krauthammer has noticed, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/03/a_dishonest_gimmicky_budget.html
    but I prefer DrSanity’s precision (SEE http://drsanity,blogspot.com), a University of Michigan Med School prof. And the pending bankruptcy of Obama’s deception grows worse:

    Clearly then, Victor Davis Hansen’s got Mooney’s number (ie, baseless conceit, rooted in mere perception, not quantifiable comparison, which is the only sound way to know), explaining the cult of Obama as the dialectic morality of the politically obsessed: “A strange thing, this Obama worship (cf. the New York Times op-ed on Sunday where the columnist imagined having sexual relations with Obama) and Bush hatred (cf. the Will Farrell Broadway show trashing Bush, and showing images of his purported penis). They are flipside manifestations of the same sickness that has taken hold of a large subset of the population. Millions seems to think by demonizing A and worshipping B, then once intractable problems (that transcend both A’s faults and B’s merits) suddenly, magically will disappear.” (Feb. 10, 2009)

    The same dialectical magic is alive to Mooney, despite the fact that Bush brought Harvard Center for Risk Analysis founder John D. Graham into the OMB – bringing rational comparative analysis to the federal government for the first time. The Bush Administration made preparations for future communicable disease threats, making is easier for officials to deal with the current Swine flu outbreak. So Bush is clearly> anti-science, anti-intellectual.”

    Obama is intellectual. He writes books (even if the first is ghost-written). Yet he cannot think on his feet without a teleprompter (because of brain damage from drug use)? Bush was anti-intellectual, Mooney presumes. Being married to a librarian, and having an annual book reading contest with his chief advisor does not make one lettered. But he still had better grades at the same college than the much lionized for “science,” Nobel Prize winning Al Gore.

    A Ph.D bearing US head of state still has not been elected since Wilson, nearly a century ago – yet Mooney considers that American anti-intellectualism has stilled? Some things are so absurd, only an intellectual could believe them – as Mooney once more proves above.


  12. MadScientist

    I don’t think it’s so much cyclic as a problem which will just not go away. Rather than ‘cyclic’ I would call it ‘resurgent’ – it’s like weeds; if you don’t keep beating them down they’ll take over your garden. Don’t worry, we’ll have morons for president in the future.

  13. chezjake

    The flip side of the coin — today Nate Silver has a good post on the decline of the conservative intellectual.

  14. MadScientist

    @chezjake: I think since William F. Buckley died there were no more conservative intellectuals left. At least Gore Vidal doesn’t have to worry about being punched by Buckley.

  15. OneHandClapping


    I have noticed that your blog has attracted the attention of some very special crazies (Orson, Marc A., Teresa, to name a few). I think that may be a sign that you are making headway. Kudos!

  16. Woody Tanaka

    LOL, Orson. Nothing says “right-wing nut with pretension toward intellectualism” than citing such “oustanding” minds as Krauthammer, Hanson and Simon. Right-wing nut house, indeed.

  17. Jon

    Yes! Susan Jacoby goes there! Wow, so quite a list of people now doing the j’accuse thing at these “conservatives”: George Packer, Jim Sleeper, Sam Tanenhaus (now, anyway), David Frum (he goes there very carefully), Susan Jacoby…

  18. Jon

    Oops. This is the passage I meant to highlight in the Susan Jacoby book: http://tinyurl.com/pu3qhb

  19. A. Daqn

    With regard to Jacoby and her new book, see review in Washington Times:

  20. Ahem, this is pure *bullshark*.

    This is blatantly a political definition of intellectualism. Just like the political definition of charity. The left defines charity as being administered by government. Anti-intellectualism in the context of this post is merely a redefinition. Substitute conservative for anti-intellectual and the truth is revealed.

    Not only is this a corruption of the language, but it is dishonest– and I would argue that it is anti-intellectual by a proper definition because it is an attempt to smear through obfuscation rather than argue honestly.

  21. misanthropope

    as eric demonstrates so well, the obama presidency is a focus for american anti-intellectualism.

    eric, STFU. nobody who uses the phrase “corruption of the language” with a straight face deserves to be taken seriously. anti intellectualism is substituting ridiculous pretense of outrage for reason. badly-done adolescent sophistry is another indicator.

  22. Kasia Yechimowicz

    I have always been a supporter of free speech and see it as vital to a dialogue, but sometimes it strikes me that the comments waged from the anti-intellectuals are simply more damaging than revealing of the idiocy of their statements. It would be nice if there was a place we could send them all and never worry about them again.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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