This Country Needs An Intellectual

If you want to see a really good example of people talking past one another, you need go no further than the charges of "elitism" being leveled at Barack Obama by the McCain campaign.

To those making the accusation, Obama's elitism seems self-evident. To the rest of us, those same charges seem ridiculous. McCain is far richer than Obama, and has been a "celebrity" far longer. Unlike Obama, he was born into privilege. With the notable exception of his time as a prisoner of war, he has led a charmed--even pampered--life. How in the world, Obama supporters ask, can he call Obama "elitist" and keep a straight face?

It's simple, once we realize that this "elitism" doesn't have anything to do with wealth or even privilege. It is an attribute of intellect. The charge of elitism is a manifestation of America's longstanding and unfortunate subtext of anti-intellectualism, and its use during this campaign is both revealing and disturbing.

In 1963, Richard Hofstader won a Pulizer Prize for his book, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," in which he explored the popular resentment many Americans feel toward those who excel academically or otherwise engage in the life of the mind. (Hofstader linked this distrust of intellect to Evangelical Protestantism, among several other causes.)

John McCain graduated from the Naval Academy in the very bottom of his class. Sarah Palin attended several undistinguished colleges before finally getting a Journalism degree. (She also clearly shares George W. Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity, not to mention his preference for impulsive, "unblinking" decision-making.) Neither of them has ever been accused of being too thoughtful, and both of them have been scornful of Barack Obama's rather cerebral approach to the issues.

What does contempt for intellect tell us about the policy processes we might expect in a McCain Administration?

First, it is a clear signal that policy decisions will be ideological, rather than pragmatic or evidence-based. People who dismiss scholarship, who sneer at research and place a high premium on speedy decision-making, are not likely to gather all the relevant data before making a decision. These are people who prefer certainty, who believe in "listening to my gut," rather than engaging in a thoughtful weighing of data or different perspectives. (We've had eight years of such decision-making, and we've seen how that works out.)

Second, a President who dislikes "elitists"--defined as people who know what they are talking about--is unlikely to solicit advice from people who know what they are talking about. We can already see this in the staffing of the two campaigns: Obama has assembled advisors who are highly competent and accomplished; McCain's campaign is filled with "the usual subjects"--disproportionately lobbyists and political consultants.

As people are finally beginning to notice, America is facing monumental problems. Our finances are cratering, we are at war, there's a mounting energy crisis, and the planet is warming with dangerous speed. We are in a world of hurt, much of which has been caused or exacerbated by the guy who got elected because he wasn't an "elitist." He was just a spoiled rich kid people wanted to drink beer with.

If we have ever needed an elitist--i.e., a really smart, thoughtful person--at the nation's helm, that time is now. I can drink beer with my friends.

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.