Mark Naison: The McCain Palin Ticket Appeals to a Powerful Strain of Anti-Intellectualism in American Society

Roundup: Historians' Take

The McCain Palin ticket, if elected, would be a disaster for the country. Their propensity to invoke God's will as a justification for government policies, their contempt for science and intellect, their extraordinary lack of knowledge about the culture and history of the major nations of the world,, and their shameless defense of an oil centered energy policy that has produced economic and ecological disaster for the nation, poorly prepares them to lead a nation whose reputation has been damaged by an ill considered war and whose position in the global economy has been steadily weakening.

However, the very things that make McCain and Palin feared in most of the world gives them an excellent chance of winning the presidency. Their proud anti-intellectualism, reflected in their personal histories as well as their rhetoric, touches a powerful chord with many working class and middle class Americans. There is a long tradition in this country of mistrusting people who have advanced academic training, which the McCain/Pallin ticket has used to great effect in holding Barack Obama up to ridicule. While some Americans might admire Barack Obama for working as a community organizer before attending Harvard Law School, and for teach law before running for public office, Republicans have used these features of Obama's biography to saw that he doesn't understand how"real folks" live.

Is this strategy going to work? Unfortunately, it could. Pitting the election as a contest between a"Good Old Boy" and his"Good Old Girl" sidekick against a"Professor" and"Community Organizer" is going to play well in large portions of working class and middle class America. McCain and Pallin are recognizable figures,, people you'd run into on the ball field and or the local bar, while Barack Obama seems like a talented and exotic outsider who somehow married into your family or moved onto your block. McCain and Pallin are candidates of a party whose policies have brought hardship and pain to untold numbers of Americans, whose jobs and homes are in jeopardy, and who are saddle with personal debt. But they speak a language ordinary people can understand and they don't make them feel guilty about their pickups and SUV’s, their snowmobiles or their guns, their service in the military and their religious faith or their occasional trips to the bar or the strip club. By contrast, they don't really know Barack Obama, and mistrust his sophistication, his calm demeanor and, and his easy facility with complex policy questions a president must face.

The discomfort, and the confusion, many working class and middle class Americans feel about intellectuals is something I experienced first hand during my fifteen years coaching sandlot baseball and Catholic Youth Organization basketball in Brooklyn in the 1980's and 1990's. The teams I coached,. though their home base was Park Slope, played many of their games in white working class neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Marine Park, Canarsie and Bergen Beach. The majority of the people I coached against were cops, firemen, construction workers, civil servants, and people who owned small businesses and I really enjoyed spending time with them. They were tough, generous, competitive and far less racist than most people would be led to expect. Though their neighborhoods were still overwhelmingly white, they were scrupulously fair to the Black and Latino kids who played on visiting teams, and tolerate d no racist language and behavior from their players or fans .I liked competing against their teams, working with them to set up games and tournaments, and occasionally going out with them for a meal or a drink. For many years, they had no idea what I did for a living. They saw a big, loud, intense, man prowling the sidelines, someone who pushed his teams hard and never backed down from a physical confrontation, and figured I was one of them, a cop, a sanitation worker, maybe a construction foreman.

When they found out I was a college teacher, they were utterly astonished and extremely confused. It was as though they just found out I had come from outer space"A professor, that's insane" someone told one of my fellow coaches" I thought he was just another Brooklyn redneck,". At the Bergen Beach baseball complex, located in a tough Italian enclave near the Belt Parkway, my name was no longer Mark, it was" Professor.", That is how people began referring to me at games and at meetings. That's how they refer to me today if they run into me in a store or on the golf course. .Their teasing wasn't mean spirited, but it definitely had an edge. These tough, hard working white guys saw professors as people who looked down on folks like them and were quick to write them off. They had felt comfortable with me because of how I acted on and off the field ,but now they wondered whether I secretly held them in contempt. No one said,” wow it's great that a guy who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn went out and got a PhD." Although they never said so in so many words, it seemed as though they feared that the very act of getting a PhD meant that I thought I was better than them.

After listening to the speeches at the Republican Convention, I am convinced that appealing to such fears and suspicions is at the core of the McCain Pallin strategy. None of this is new. From George Wallace, to Spiro Agnew to Rush Limbaugh, the right has used anti-intellectualism, especially directed at Professors, as one of its major rallying cries. But to do so at this historic moment, when the American economy is in deep disarray and so many of its foreign policy initiatives have come to grief, is particularly worrisome. Will working class and middle class Americans see through this desperate charade and vote for someone with the temperament, training and intellect to actually solve some of the nation's problems, or will they let their own fears and prejudices wed them to the status quo. Time will tell, but based on my own personal experience in white middle class and working class America, I am not hopeful.

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Raul A Garcia - 9/30/2008

At last, fresh air! Quirky, almost anthropological dissection of one man's view, is interesting but frightening. Incredible generalizations and characterizations! I love the American people and all are generally good and noble and to heap them all in some bin is not nice! I have seen too many so-called intellectuals become intransigent supporters of totalitarianism. Thanks for the great criticism of Mr. Naison's holier-than-thou cynicism.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/19/2008

I was taking "European Intellectual History" about 1979. The professor was one of my favorites. In fact, he was the second-best (and close to first) professor who I had as an undergrad.

One day in class, he made a comment about how "Americans are anti-intellectual". Never one to back down from authority, from the second row I shot back, "That's because intellectuals are anti-American."

He went wide-eyed in shock, but to his credit, after a few moments of contemplation, he admitted I was right.

Tim R. Furnish - 9/13/2008

Oh, pardon me, Dr. Dresner--but being just a poor dumb conservative Ph.D. myself, I have no idea what "cultural capital" is, except that methinks it somehow must mean something like "spending more money on useless government education programs," right?
By the way: what are the three issues I'm conflating?
And I love your objective, analytical language: "viciously....hyprocritically." And also that snide use of quotation marks around the term conservative. What, pray tell, is that supposed to mean?
Bottom line: my point, which you seem to have missed (or merely hastened to obfuscate), still stands: that Dems/libs measure "intellectualism" by money spent on educational program--wait, I mean the RIGHT educational programs, not those Neanderthal ones like, say, informing young people that the more sure-fire method of birth control is, unbelievably, not having sex. And you are proving just how out-of-touch you are by creating that straw man (sorry, person) in which conservatives only support higher ed for "higher wages." Just how many conservatives with Ph.Ds, M.D.s or J.D.s do you actually know? I'd wager not many.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/12/2008

You're conflating at least three different issues here, and overlooking the fact that Republicans have consistently, since Nixon at least, run campaigns which publicly and viciously (and, yes, hypocritically) attack their opponents for having any cultural capital. (Tim Burke says it better than I) Moreover, "conservative" commentators have continued the theme between elections, to the point where the inexperience of Palin (or G. W. Bush before her) is sold as an advantage and higher education is acceptable only if it leads to economic results -- higher wages, saleable technologies.

Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2008

I remember when the GOP became the House Majority in 1994, one of my doctoral program History profs at Ohio State bemoaning the "anti-intellectualism" of the Republicans. I asked him "how could the Congressional GOP leadership of DR. Newt Gingrich, DR. Phil Gramm and DR. Dick Armey (History, Econ and Econ, respectively) be "anti-intellectual?" He was stunned and his only answer was "they will vote to cut education benefits." There you have it. By this logic you can be the most uneducated hayseed in the US of A, but if you VOTE for more money for the bloated educacational bureaucracy--which, by the way, truly IS anti-intellectual in the true sense of the term--you are ok with the liberals.

James Jude Simonelli - 9/12/2008

Anti-intellectualism? Let me tell you about it from the trenches of modern political campaigning from here in Ohio USA.

As an Obama supporter I have been involved in making phone calls and knocking on doors to solicit votes for Barack Obama for President.

Invariably when a devout Republican or racist answers the door it is immediately slammed with the exclamation of some explicative shouted as the door closes. The result of phone calls to the same type of NASCAR, backwater, tobacco, beer consuming "bubba" or "momma" is all to obvious in emphasizing the point made in this argument.

“Mindless Electorate” comes to mind as a descriptor of such cumulative behavior.

When viewed with a number of other gathering influences on our electorate, such as "The Beauty Queen ‘wanna bee’ Goes to Washington", we are really in trouble.

All of the current events seem to go hand in hand with a pervasive disregard for the gravity of our current state of the nation AND of the world.

Anti-Intellectualism, like hell says this boy from Brooklyn displaced in a new nation of news by the bit and politics by the trite. I'm fighting back as best as I am able but it is nonetheless frightening to say the least.

Bill Heuisler - 9/9/2008

Dr. Wolman,
Your comments would be far more cogent and compelling if you could spell out the, "Obama's message" you mention.
Perhaps halting delivery, opaque logic and shifting principles are sufficient in Obama's Constitutional Law classroom, but they apparently come across as phoney to most people.
Obama has no message other than an embarrassingly transparent hubris.
Bill Heuisler

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

"I dare say it is not that MOST of America is against intellectuals, just the irrational, idiotic, and yes, here it is, LIBERAL policies that always seem to be shoved down the throats of middle class America."

How lame. There's absolutely nothing wrong with liberal policies. In fact, the past 8 years have shown what a failure conservative policies have been. There's no blaming the Democrats on this one. The Republicans own it- years where the Republicans held the majority in both houses and the presidency. The cliche of "tax and spend liberals" has been shown as the sham that it is- and the new moniker- credit card conservatives has been shown as the true credo of the Republican party.

McCain is going to lose given that the younger generation will be coming out in droves. It's time for the older generation to step aside and let the younger generation take the lead.

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

Hahahahahahaha! ROTFL.

You are soooo funny I just about puked in my mouth.

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

Dudes- I'm smarter than the both of you. Hahahahahahahaha.

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

"snapperheads who have no concept of America"

Love it.

Can't wait to see the size of the dump that the Republicans take when a mixed race man wins the presidency.

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

Davis- Better than the Boston Harbor University you probably "attended."

"racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism, along with other, more exotic, variant faults."

Truth hurts sometimes. Suck it up.

K-Diggity Dog - 9/9/2008

"Anti-American, left-wing, living in a New York City bubble, pseudo-intellectual, effete, snapperhead is more along the lines I was thinking of."

Better than being a knee jerk reactionary fool who only believes in the first amendment for people who think like them. Better than the those who swagger and like to prove on a daily basis that their balls are bigger than everyone else's. Better than the credit card conservative who only pays lip service to fiscal responsibility.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

You snapperhead.

I love the hysterics coming out now that the Nobama idiots are losing.

Ye suckers.

Rich Scillia - 9/8/2008

Hey Davis,
Why don't you confine your attention to Fox "News" where you belong. You ignorant moron.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

I'm sure his "Ph.D." no doubt came from some degree farm where he had to submit a few papers, then got his rag to hang up on the wall.

A guy who peruses the Old York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Observer, and thinks himself superior to others, when in fact, he is inferior to the guy who just picked the trash up on my block this morning.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

He can't explain Obama victory. He's been sucked into the Obama BS machine that makes believe a guy who 15 months after being elected senator thinks he is now the chosen one to lead our country. Someone who four years ago was a back bencher in the Illinois state house. Someone who comes from DC but can say "change" with a straight face, and who picks another senator who's been in DC for 36 years as a running mate!!!

Give me a break. Their hatred for Bush and everyone with a capital R behind their name has clouded their judgment and rational thinking, if they even had any to begin with.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

Socialist is not the right word. Anti-American, left-wing, living in a New York City bubble, pseudo-intellectual, effete, snapperhead is more along the lines I was thinking of.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

This site is dominated by snapperheads who have no concept of America, only what they tell each other in their ivory towers.

Wait to see how surprised they are when Obama loses the election.

Mass suicide! Good riddens I say.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

Here, here. It's pusillanimous "professors" like Naison who give intellectualism a bad name.

He's probably some part-time adjunct teaching at Queens college, for pennies no doubt.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

I was wondering how long before some of the erudite snapperheads on this site started spouting off about the "anti-intellectual" Republicans.

Mr. Naison, I thought it was these same middle class voters the Democrats were finally trying to reach out to?
What's up with the remark on how they are all white? Surely there are anti-intellectuals among black and Hispanics. Of course you would never run into any living in Park Slope.

My suggestion to you Mark, is to get out of Brooklyn more often. I dare say it is not that MOST of America is against intellectuals, just the irrational, idiotic, and yes, here it is, LIBERAL policies that always seem to be shoved down the throats of middle class America.

McCain is going to win, with Palin, thanks in part to apathy among Hillary supporters for Obama, as well as in these middle class Americans whom you despise seeing right through the Obama B.S. machine.

Paul Wolman - 9/8/2008

My cousins and I grew up playing ball on same the Brooklyn streets you did, Mark--in the era when Robinson and DiMaggio were fading out and Mays and Mantle were roaring in. Good times. More recently (well, 25 years ago, when I had an arm), I played on (among others) a bar team in rural Illinois and on a construction company team down here in Prince George's county.

I went on from New York to get a Ph.D., too. Of course, I ran into many of the same attitudes you did: "Piled Higher and Deeper," they said.

But the working class goes beyond "dose, deem, and dose" stereotypes, doesn't it? I've run into lots of people who are working class by any modern definition--social workers, public school teachers, computer technicians, printers, police officers, hospital employees, truck drivers, to name a few--who are receptive to Obama's message.

As for the others, let them talk and work things out in their own terms. The influence we have on these folks--as you clearly show--is to pay them the respect of playing the game. You fear that knowing you are a professor "they wonder...whether I secretly held them in contempt." Maybe some do have such a fear. That's no fault of your own, but maybe it's better for us to take the ribbing in good humor than to transform it into a dysphoric class analysis.

In short, it might be more comfortable for us if the "working class" conformed exactly to the cherished images of the 1930s--muscular, hardworking Democrats sitting on their stoops in their undershirts. But they don't.

In your piece, you've voiced an easy rationalization for an Obama defeat.

How would you explain an Obama victory?

Richard Williams - 9/8/2008

More elitist snobbery from the "anointed" socialists on the left.

David Molnar - 9/8/2008

Anti-intellectualism is rampant, but it is not the source of the significant unease regular folks feel toward professors. What makes many uneasy is the narrow-mindedly Leftist, anti-American, anti-European views that permeate and often seam mandatory in academia. Regular Americans want fairness and recognize national imperfections, but are alienated by professorial obsessions with American or white man's "afflictions" -- racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism, along with other, more exotic, variant faults.

It's not that you're teaching their kids; it's what you're teaching their kids!

Donald Gene McClure - 9/8/2008

This Site Has Got To Be The Most Left Wing Site Yet.. I Have Never Been To A Website That Is This Biased.. Remind Me To Never Visit This Un- American Website Again. These People Are The Reason This Country Is In The Shape It's In!!!!! These Reporters Are Nuts.

Tom Brennan - 9/7/2008

I am always cautious of those who attack the intelligence of others. Give them enough time and their true selves will be revealed. In your short rant against the anti-intellectualism of McCain/Palin supporters, you managed to mispell "Pallin", "temperment", "whether", "languge", "intellectuls", and "desparate". And your grammar? What can I say about "and for teach law", and "features of Obama's biography to saw...". Brilliant! And you're a PhD no less! And you wonder why others "mistrust people with advanced academic training". I wonder how you got yours. What is sad, you are "teeching" our future!