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Egghead lives: looking back to the 50’s

Published: October 3, 2008
Section: Opinions

Watching the Republican convention this summer, with its incessant attacks on “liberal elites,” characterizing Barack Obama as ‘aloof’ and ‘out of touch’ with ‘regular Americans’ (I confess, a particular favorite was Mike Huckabee accusing Obama of believing in “European Ideas” – Democracy anybody? Natural Rights? – but I digress), I found myself reminded of another Presidential election in which the Democrat, running against a decorated Republican veteran, was painted as ‘aloof,’ overly intellectual, an ‘egghead.’ I speak of the 1952 election, wherein Republican Dwight Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson after casting him as an arrogant liberal intellectual who talked down to the voters.

Anti-intellectualism has a long and proud heritage in American culture, passing from religious revivalists in the mid seventeenth century to Jacksonian populists in the early nineteenth century to mid-American capitalists in the twentieth century.

This strain reached a peak during the McCarthy era, such that historian Richard Hofstadter, in his Pulitzer Prize winning work on the subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, observed, “The political ferment and educational controversy of the 1950’s made the term anti-intellectual a central epithet in American self-evaluation.”

For Stevenson, a politician of uncharacteristic thoughtfulness and wit, this revival proved particularly ill-timed. The original “egghead,” so named due to his bald brow and oblong visage, Stevenson had worked as a new dealer in the 1930’s, and later served as a member of the American delegation at the founding conference of the United Nations.

Elected governor of Illinois in 1948, Stevenson initially refused to let his name be put forward as a candidate at the Democratic Convention, agonizing about accepting the nomination when it came to him, facts conservatives would later use to attack his “intellectual” tendency to “overthink” things. Yet his eloquence and commitment to a thought provoking style of politics brought him a passionate following in the Democratic Party.

Never one to disguise ugly truths, Stevenson did not shrink from thoughtful criticism of his country; so he declared in his acceptance speech:

“More important than winning the election is governing the nation. That is the test of a political party – the acid, final test. When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissention and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable and hostile power abroad.”

While this rhetoric went down well with critical liberals, most Americans aren’t known for their willingness to accept criticism of their country (no less today than in the 1950’s). “The greater part of the public,” Hofstadter noted, “and a great part even of the intelligent and alert public, is simply non-intellectual,” forgoing that strain of national self-criticism intellectuals frequently engage in. Stevenson, with his though provoking speeches and constant self-doubt probably aimed higher than he ought; yet in response to precisely that criticism, he wrote after the campaign:

Did I talk over the people’s heads? No … I think candidates for important offices … should not treat us as fourteen-year-olds, but as adults, challenging us, in the ancient tradition of all civilized people, with the assumption that we should and can and will respond to the appeal of reason and imagination.

This still inspiring sentiment, that politicians should engage with voters, not pander to them, that we should aim high, and believe such achievement possible, invokes a spirit long absent – shamefully absent – from our recent political past. Rather than follow the road of higher aspiration, we have allowed those of the opposite, anti-intellectual persuasion to dominate the discourse on both sides.

This latter persuasion, the ethos of those who rush to question the patriotism of anyone who professes opinions critical of America, Hofstadter defined as, “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

The tendency in American politics for the last 30 years or more, and displayed most shamefully in the last presidential election cycle, has been to pit the major party candidates against each other in a race to proclaim themselves the most patriotic, and the propensity of intellectuals to question this dogmatic patriotism has rendered them vulnerable to charges of anti-Americanism. Yet refusing to subscribe to dogma is hardly a fair test of anyone’s respect for their country, something Adlai Stevenson understood quite well. During a speech to the American Legion in the ’52 campaign, he observed:

“The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shining armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different – the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety.”

In the current election cycle we again have a candidate known for his eloquence, a man who still claims to see the best in us, one who asserts his love of country by embracing a multitude of voices: a modern egghead.

Perhaps, confronted with the specter of economic doom and their influence abroad at an historic low, Americans, after eight years of perhaps the most anti-intellectual administration in the nation’s history, will come to regard Barack Obama’s measured words with more respect than intellectuals have of late received. And yet I can’t help but add a final word from Stevenson.

During the campaign, Stevenson, after an event, was approached by a voter. “Governor,” the man said, “that was a great speech. After hearing that, I’m sure you’ll get the vote of every thinking man.”

“Why thank you,” Stevenson replied, “but I need a majority to win.”