In the past few months, as the presidential campaign has reached a fever pitch, I've noticed something that disturbed me. I've often heard accusations of elitism tossed about in campaign rhetoric. This idea has been coupled with a strong sense of anti-intellectualism.
American anti-intellectualism is certainly not a new phenomenon. It was a part of President Andrew Jackson's appeal in 1828 when he was elected to the presidency-based partially on the notion that he had been cheated out of it in 1824 by corrupt elite Eastern politicians. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president after he and Jackson failed to garner a majority in the election. Jackson's appeal was based on his image as a populist and a man of the people. It is worth noting that like the current president, he took a remarkably expansionist view of executive power, going so far as to defy a Supreme Court decision. It remained in play through the era of Joseph McCarthy, when "eggheads" were the focus of anti-Communist efforts. In the 1960s, anti-intellectualism characterized mistrust of university academics, and today the sentiment has expanded to include what Sarah Palin called in her Republican convention speech, the "Washington elite."
On two particular levels I understand the sentiment. First, I think one should hold a healthy level of skepticism for one's leaders, no matter who they are. If anti-intellectualism, or anti-elitism means that one is wary of officials' attempts to manipulate or deceive the public, then I'm all for it. Second, I can understand the impulse to want a relatable leader. A voter who sees reflections of him or herself in a candidate should be able to reasonably expect that individual to prioritize issues that matter to the voter. If anti-intellectualism embodies the sense that certain politicians don't have the greater good at heart, then-in my opinion-it's not so bad.
However, in its modern form, anti-intellectualism seems prone to what Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason" referred to as "anti-rationalism." In an environment where "character"-that amorphous term-is more important to some than actual policies or policy proposals, it seems to me that anti-rationalism is taking hold in a dangerous and potentially damaging way. Further, it seems odd at best for individuals to expect "change" from a candidate who has stood in solidarity with the current administration more than 90 percent of the time.
It seems to me that for some of us, the desire to have leaders who are like us has gone too far, and the result has been a sort of "race to the bottom" on the part of politicians to endear themselves to the lowest common denominator. It's the type of situation that forces someone like Hillary Clinton to toss back shots in a Pennsylvania bar in order to prove her solidarity with working Americans. It's the kind of politics where candidates strive to portray the image that Bush did in his two campaigns-the type of person you would want to kick back and have a beer with. "Joe Six Pack" if you will.
Leadership of the country-particularly in the executive branch-requires that officials act as trustees for their constituents. A trustee is charged to act on his or her best judgment in the interest of constituents. A trustee by definition has to know more than the average person, not be the average person. When it comes to leading a country of 300 million-or even a few thousand-average just isn't enough. And honestly, it's really just insulting when anyone believes that getting my vote requires dumbing down.