October 1, 2015

Bernie Sanders and progressive anti-intellectualism

There's a reason we take Sosc classes.

As readers of Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life know, American democracy, or even democracy in general, is likely to have a large dose of antipathy toward head-in-the-clouds “eggheads.” Usually, we expect this tendency to find itself at home on the political right, whose followers generally place faith in long-established institutions and rely on prejudices, whether well- or ill-established. Although this has been truer of continental conservatism than American, we here in America can still understand what John Stuart Mill was getting at when he called the English conservatives the “stupid party.”

But even if less discussed, it is equally apparent that the left, and especially its most radical sects, has its own form of anti-intellectualism. This is why few of us were taken aback when Senator Bernie Sanders (A.B. ’64) began his address to throngs of cheering students by boasting that he was not a very good student while here at the University, that he read very few of the books he was actually assigned, and that he did most of his learning outside of the classroom. George W. Bush—or any other conservative politician—would have been roundly mocked by those in elite circles for such boasting about a rejection of the importance of education. But the students here saw in Sanders a form of anti-intellectualism that they considered more respectable, one that ironically flourishes especially at the University. This left-wing anti-intellectualism (for lack of a better term) is partially born of the belief that careful study of the Western tradition is stultifying because the Western tradition is too patriarchal, too oppressive and too, well, traditional. But even absent these critiques—which formed the basis of the movements to gut core curricula in America—radical politicians have often thought study of the wisdom of the past worthless because it is not progressive. As Marx once declared, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it.” Although Sanders’s comments may have been in jest, they did reflect this sentiment exactly: What he could have learned in his assigned reading could have helped him interpret the world, but his real goal was to change it.

Hofstadter believes that an intellectual is not simply more intelligent than others, but that he is essentially unique in disposition; an intellectual is “sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees.” Even the most committed Sanders disciples would have to exhaust a near-infinite list of adjectives to describe the frenetic Vermont socialist before they arrived at “nuanced.” In his speech he indicted the American political and economic systems on the broadest and most bombastic charges—“oligarchy,” “totally corrupt”—and encouraged students not to get “sucked into [a] worldview” that believes detailed debates and analyses of costs (“Should we decrease education by two percent or increase it by one percent?”) are necessary for good policy. Instead he suggested that if we simply merely “stand together,” trade-offs and hard realities simply vanish. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a demagogue.

This is not to suggest that if Sanders had spent a few more nights in the Reg, he would have different policy positions. But there is more than a kernel of truth in the oft-repeated claim that liberal education teaches us how to think rather than what to think. If, for example, Sanders’s had spent a bit more time with Friedrich Hayek, he may still support a nationally mandated $15 minimum wage, but he would likely feel the need to explain why his proposal would not result in the kinds of unintended consequences which centralized planning of complex economic systems often does, and why his proposal wouldn’t lead to job cuts and faster automation, ultimately hurting those he wishes to help. Or if Sanders had spent a bit more time with Adam Smith, he might still oppose free trade, but he might feel compelled to explain why such a policy would not hurt most Americans—especially those in low-skill service jobs who would receive no benefit from a manufacturing resurgence—by raising the prices of consumer goods. In short, Sanders would feel the need to explain his positions with reference to more than heartfelt exhortations—“This is not justice!” “That is not a family value!”—about what he believes to be right and wrong. This is a vice in which Sanders—even more than other politicians, a class admittedly not known for their nuance—is especially likely to indulge.

My contention, contra Marx and Senator Sanders, is that the world is not a simple place, that to change the world we first need to understand the world, and that even now, in 2015, we should be dubious of the claims of politicians who promise fundamental change simply by fiat and charisma. Of course politics is a moral endeavor and we can never separate our morals from our politics. But politics also requires that we understand that the world is a complex place where things that appear bad can actually be good at the core, and where our efforts to do good often fail and indeed wreak more havoc.

Support whomever you’d like for president. But also do your Sosc reading.

Nicholas Saffran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science. 

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