In a recent post by dr ngo at Obsidian Wings discussing the US election he talked about the anti-intellectualism of US culture and its political effect. This got me thinking about possible historical reasons why anti-intellectualism is so much more politically significant in the US than in other countries (especially given that the US does actually have a very strong intellectual tradition). I will say at once that Im not coming to this topic with any detailed knowledge of American political and social history, but there are some interesting points to make from an outsiders perspective.
The first thing to stress is that anti-intellectualism as an attitude is very old and not purely a western phenomenon. For three examples that are more than 2000 years old, see the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, Aristophanes play The Clouds and the Qin dynasty programme of book burning. I suspect that anti-intellectual attitudes exist in any culture which has intellectuals, in the sense of an individual group distinguished by their superior education/learning. (Im going to use this very broad definition of intellectuals here, because that is the one anti-intellectuals tend to use). Theres an obvious reason for this: the paradox that learning and knowledge do not necessarily lead to true wisdom. The comic stereotypes of the foolish wise man and the cunning fool are found in folk tales, as well as the sitcom Frasier.
But I think that anti-intellectualism as a potential political force normally requires the existence within a society of social mobility via education. If an intellectual can achieve, through their learning, a social level that they are not born to, there are two obvious groups affected. One is those of his/her social peers who have not ascended in this way: envy may not be a pleasant emotion, but its a very common one. The other group affected by the social mobility of intellectuals is those who are already part of the ruling class for other reasons. If social mobility is possible, their political and social dominance may be challenged.
But theres also a third group who are normally involved in all more substantial anti-intellectual movements: intellectuals or would-be intellectuals themselves. Intellectual social mobility requires competition between intellectuals for advancement (whether formally via competitive exams, or informally via patronage). The ambitious but unsuccessful intellectual (or the disillusioned intellectual) is often found attacking the system itself. Most anti-intellectual movements which want to make a serious impact need some of educated people within them, because those are the kind of people who can provide both effective propaganda and strategic political thinking. An early example of this kind of trahison des clercs is Jerome arguing against reading pagan (classical Roman) literature. It was normal for the literate classes in late fourth century Rome to do so, but there was a rhetorical advantage to be gained by claiming not to read such material, and Jerome was not alone in his opportunism.
Most substantial anti-intellectual movements, therefore have seen some intellectuals ally either with the current ruling class (top-down anti-intellectualism) or those left behind by social mobility (bottom-up anti-intellectualism). If intellectuals ally with the ruling class, culturally this gets you claims that intellectual ability is less important than natural breeding or character. (The classic example of this is Thomas Arnolds development of the public school ethos at Rugby). Politically, this alliance has normally been seen in countries ruled by oligarchies and aristocracies, and their more modern offshoots, traditional Conservative parties. Its main political limitation is a lack of broad-based appeal.
At a cultural level, meanwhile, an alliance with those lower down gives you adulation of folk wisdom and common sense. At a political level, such an alliance has traditionally produced the demagogue and the revolutionary leader (from the Athenian killing of Socrates to The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers). More recently, it gives you populist working-class parties either of the right (such as the British National Party or Pauline Hansons One Nation) or of the left (such as the original UK Labour party, communism and its offshoots). Its main political limitation is its lack of the knowledge of the levers of political power and the active hostility of the existing ruling class.
Normally, these two forms of anti-intellectualism have been mutually exclusive, because their different political interests need different messages. Top-down anti-intellectualism, in the service of the ruling class, always has to define non-intellectual superiority in way that excludes the lower classes having it (or why should they be ruled rather than ruling), which explains the emphasis on character as something built particularly by very expensive schools. Bottom-up anti-intellectualism, in the service of the lower classes, has to define moral superiority in terms of virtues and experiences that their classes have in particular. Otherwise, why should they now be included in government? This explains all the intricate arguments about who is really working class.
There are two obvious factors which affect how politically significant anti-intellectualism is likely to be in any society: the extent of democracy and the extent of social mobility. Except in revolutionary (or post-revolutionary) situations (such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution), bottom-up anti-intellectualism is only politically significant in democracies, when those left behind get to vote. The amount of social mobility is also important. Even though not all social mobility is via education (its also possible though exceptional natural talent (entertainers, entrepreneurs, military geniuses) or exceptional luck (lottery winners) or both (sleeping with/marrying the right person)) education is almost always the largest cause of upwards social mobility. If there is a lot of social mobility, those left at the bottom are likely to feel more resentment: its harder to attribute their own failure to rise to external factors than if such rises are rare. Michael Young pointed out this problem with meritocracy 50 years ago). High social mobility, however, makes competition between intellectuals less fraught (because there are more places available), and so makes them less likely to defect to anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism by the ruling classes is initially increased by high social mobility (more competition for them). But at a certain level of social mobility, enough individuals who have risen themselves through education get into the ruling class for this anti-intellectualism to be diluted.
Theres also one other factor that I think is significant in pushing up anti-intellectualism, and thats the removal of educational discrimination. Whenever formal or quasi-formal barriers to the education of minorities, such as women, blacks, Jews, the working class etc are removed (whether its allowing women to graduate, universal free education or the end of Jewish quotas), then anti-intellectualism is likely to increase, at least in the short-term. The increased social mobility will upset both those left behind (especially those who have been convinced of the natural intellectual inferiority of such groups) and those of the ruling class who see their position challenged. It also means more competition for intellectuals themselves, since there will be a larger pool of talent competing for the same opportunities for advancement.
The contradictory factors which contribute to political anti-intellectualism suggests that it will normally be kept in equilibrium, since social forces both encourage and discourage it, and anti-intellectualism itself not a coherent concept. But there is an exception when social mobility is actually low, but thought to be high. In that case, you get a lot of both the aggrieved left behind and also disillusioned intellectuals, while the ruling class also keeps more of any anti-intellectualism it traditionally possesses. (A situation where discrimination in education is still high (due to informal discrimination), but thought to be low (due to the lack of formal discrimination) is similarly likely to increase the resentment of both would-be intellectuals and those left behind).
While the US national myth is all about its high social mobility, it actually has lower mobility then many other western cultures. There is a particularly interesting contrast with Canada, which shares many of the same economic features and early pioneer history with the US, but doesnt have the same anti-intellectual political culture (that I know of).
This gap between reality and image opens up possibilities for those in the ruling class of the US not available for politicians in the UK (which has equally low social mobility, but fewer myths about it). In both countries, there are politicians who owe their rise at least as much to their high socio-economic class as their own talents. In a supposedly classless and meritocratic society like the US, such politicians can more successfully identify their beliefs with bottom-up anti-intellectualism, to make a grand anti-intellectual alliance. In a country more conscious of class like the UK (and more deferential towards high social class), a Conservative politician from a public school would be foolish to pretend that he was not from a cosmopolitan and metropolitan background.
That is my interpretation (in very general terms) of why anti-intellectualism can have a political influence in the US that it has in few other countries (the nearest equivalent I can think of is Australia, but I think that has a more purely populist political system). Id be very interested if anyone has good counter-examples or better explanations (or comments on other countries that I havent mentioned – how does political anti-intellectualism work in India, for example?)