I’ve been following the ongoing debate over conservatives, populism, and our supposed anti-intellectualism with some interest. David Brooks has been banging this drum for some time, and so have many others. Yet I think they’re missing something important: It’s not that conservatives disdain “education” or “intellectuals,” it’s more that we now know — after more than 30 years of confronting the modern university — that the intellectual emperor has no clothes.
In other words, it is not the idea of education that repels heartland conservatives, it is the type of education that we know our elites receive. How “elite” is a social class that all too often embraces the postmodernism and intolerance of the modern academy? How “elite” is a cultural class that catches the vapors at a Larry Summers speech, embraces academic departments that promulgate grotesquely historically flawed “deconstructions” of the American story, and drips with contempt for traditional values — not because those values have been tried and found wanting but because those values are seen as the primary obstacle to progressive cultural change.
It is no doubt a problem that professionals are rejecting Republicans by lopsided margins. But we must ask, is it because conservatives reject education? Or is it because professionals are educated to reject conservatives?
To be sure, some subset of the conservative movement does seem to find policy arguments much more alluring when made with a regional accent, and there is no doubt that elite-bashing can be simple-minded and extreme, but the idea that conservative movement as a whole is turning its back on “book-learnin’” is just silly. We revere Churchill and Lincoln just as much as we ever did. The academy — and, consequently, our educated “elite” — do not.
The problem is largely cultural, not political. The university system as a whole is culturally dominated by a system of thought that not only rejects conservatism (especially social conservatism), it considers it not even worth discussion. Conservatives can nominate attractive and urbane candidates all they want, but unless their ideas change, they will see increasing problems winning over an “educated” class that has spent year after year hearing only half the story.