If They Only Had A Brain: Republicans and Anti-Intellectualism

Two months ago, Jon Huntsman Jr., observing a clear trend of climate change denial among his fellow presidential hopefuls, warned that the Republican Party should avoid becoming the "anti-science party" lest it find itself on the "wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position." Yet Republicans appear to be staking out increasingly clear positions not just against logic and deductive reasoning, but against intellectual thought and higher education in general.

Take Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who announced a few weeks ago that unlike Democratic senatorial candidate and Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, he graduated not from Harvard but from the "school of hard knocks." Never mind that Ms. Warren did not attend Harvard as a student (she went to George Washington University and Rutgers), or that Mr. Brown holds a BA from Tufts University and a JD from Boston College -- both top-ranked institutions.

Or take presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has made attacking President Obama's advising team (what he calls "the Harvard faculty lounge") and academic credentials a regular element of his stump speeches. Never mind that Mr. Romney holds both an MBA and JD from Harvard University, or that his own advising team draws upon the expertise of Meghan O'Sullivan, Harvard professor of international affairs, and Greg Mankiw, Harvard professor of economics.

It would be one thing if this were just a matter of signaling and bluster. Accusing your opponent of being an out-of-touch, pointy-headed, latte-sipping, ivory-tower, ivy-league intellectual - while in many cases, holding one or two degrees from prestigious institutions yourself - is an age-old conservative sleight-of-hand that won't be going away anytime soon.

What's disconcerting, however, is the degree to which Republicans are now alleging academic educations to be an actual political weakness, and anti-intellectual "credentials" a political strength. Rick Perry, for example, has deployed his poor academic record not as a sign of humility but as a badge of honor. Republican surrogates, when making statements about Elizabeth Warren, have been instructed to refer to her sneeringly as "Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren."

Such attitudes do harm to the idea of higher education. They go beyond mere conservative punchlines, signaling to voters that intellectual curiosity and a record of academic success is a bad thing, something that politicians and policymakers should be ashamed of. Where the Republicans of yesteryear used to pride themselves on attending prestigious universities, reading conservative luminaries like Ludwig van Mises and Milton Friedman, and becoming "better-informed" than their liberal counterparts on matters of public policy, today's Republican candidates seem both unwilling and unable to confront Democrats in the marketplace of ideas. They are not only ignorant about basic ideas of good governance, but proudly so.

For example, Herman Cain, when pressed about his knowledge of foreign affairs, quipped that "When [journalists] ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know? And then I'm going to say how's that going to create one job?" He then dismissed "these small insignificant states around the world" as not meriting the president's attention.

Comments like these should worry voters. Mr. Cain's implication that the American president has more important things to do than understand Middle Eastern geopolitics is unfortunate - particularly at a time when the United States finds itself embroiled in multiple conflicts across the region. Perhaps if Mr. Cain had a bit more curiosity about international affairs, he would know that Uzbekistan is currently at the center of a fierce debate in U.S. policy circles. With relations with Pakistan worsening, some have suggested that the U.S. should move Afghanistan-bound military supply routes from Pakistan to the more reliably U.S.-friendly Uzbekistan - and reward the country with increased military aid. Doing so, however, would run counter to international sanctions of Uzbekistan, which has an abysmal human rights record and is considered by Freedom House to be "one of the world's most repressive societies." While no one expects a political outsider like Mr. Cain to have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of U.S. foreign policy, it should give us pause that he not only doesn't care to know the name of the Uzbek president - Islam Karimov, by the way - but also that he assumes Uzbekistan to be of no strategic importance for U.S. national interests.

Highly visible candidates like Mr. Cain and Mr. Perry, with their open disdain for academic rigor and nuanced policy, are ushering the Republican Party further and further into the intellectual wilderness - and few seem to care. Rather than purporting to be the party of "smart" policy, the GOP is now eagerly transforming itself into the party of "simple" policy. (Or, in the words of Paul Krugman, "the party of stupid.") Today's Republicans would do well to remember Henry Louis Menckin's adage: "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong."

Anti-intellectualism and closed-mindedness is harmful both to the country and to the conservative agenda. Elections should be won not by those who have the simplest ideas, but by those who have the best ideas. Republicans should take a little bit more pride in their thinkers and their educations. Rather than attacking President Obama and Elizabeth Warren as "professors" - as if that were some sort of smear - Republicans like Scott Brown and Mitt Romney should tout their own impressive educations as making them uniquely qualified to deliver conservative solutions for complex policy problems. Otherwise, they may find themselves challenged more and more by Tea Party upstarts who are not merely pretending to be intellectually bankrupt.

Republicans have the right to criticize liberal academics over philosophical disagreements. But they should quit bemoaning Democratic politicians simply for having post-secondary educations and tenured positions, and quit running from their own academic credentials. Americans may have little patience for intellectual snobbery, but they have no patience at all for willful idiocy.

Written by Zachary Rosenfeld, Masters in Public Policy candidate and Chair of the HKS Democrats Op-Ed Team. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.