Intellectualism At Odds With Democracy


Nicholas Lemann looks back at Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, first published just over fifty years ago in 1963. He appreciates that Hofstadter “does not see anti-intellectualism as the corrupting serpent in the American Eden … as he demonstrates, it has been deeply ingrained in the national culture from the very beginning”:

[T]o 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.

(Image: Tea Party rally, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, September 2009, via Wikimedia Commons)