Richard Hofstadter asserted, in his 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, that anti-intellectualism is about resentment and hostility toward “the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it.” On the latter, it was about categorizing intellectuals as outsiders, servants, and scapegoats. It would be foolish to deny that instances of these attitudes and behaviors have occurred, both in the past and present.
Yet, as my reading in the historiography grows (in terms of Hofstadter’s heirs), a lack of evidence, or at least evidence that can be interpreted in different ways, is pointing me to a contrarian claim: citizens are not, in fact, exhibiting clear general problems in those areas. They do not generally resent critical thinking, creativity, research, or intellectual individualism. Regular people are not hostile to what Hofstadter identified as “the play of the mind” or “playfulness” of the intellect. While some evidence exists regarding contrary tendencies, that evidence doesn’t indict broad swaths of the population. What seems clear, however, in historical and present-day political news is a resentment about what those intellectuals represent in the sturm und drang of democratic discourse. Hostility toward intellectuals is accidental in relation to what those individuals symbolize, or appear to symbolize. To belabor the point no longer, very often I find that instances of so-called anti-intellectualism are really about elitism and anti-elitism.
Confusion and Confusing Factors
Writers—meaning journalists, pundits, or even historians (gasp!)—who identify “anti-intellectualism” are often elites who are writing for other elites. If liberal and conservative elites must disagree about political ideals, they can agree that the common person is “anti-intellectual,” even as they manipulate those people for different ends. To the elites, regular voters don’t get the complexity of situation, or are simply reacting, or being emotional. Those outside circles of the elite “we” are either just jealous or noisy. Their opinions are unearned. They don’t deserve to contribute, even while their votes are needed. One of Hofstadter’s mentees, Christopher Lasch, identified these manipulative, nefarious tendencies in the latter’s 1994 book, The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (who primarily and mistakenly, I think, characterized those elites as liberals).
The roots of today’s anti-elitism are not in the general tendencies observed more than fifty years ago by Richard Hofstadter—i.e. spontaneity, preference for intuition, practicality, egalitarianism, etc. Today’s anti-elitist currents are not in historical trends related to Protestant religious movements, the mass politics of emotion, or business. (Those currents do, however, arise from an intensification of some of the trends Hofstadter identified in education. More on that below.) Continuing in relation to Hofstadter’s text, today’s trends are not grounded in the narrow, specific intellectuals in his book’s historical eras, such as Jonathan Edwards, William Jennings Bryan, Frederick Winslow Taylor, or John Dewey. Rather, anti-elitism is about two things: the resentment of both ideological political “thinkers” and a credentialism that feeds a faux meritocracy.
On ideological thinkers, ponder the specific preachers, business people, and education reformers who, while neither aspiring to the status of “intellectual” or promoting themselves as such, become associated with “thoughtfulness” about particular issues in particular periods. Examples include Bircher sympathizers on communism in the early 1960s, the Berrigan Brothers on anti-nuclear efforts in the 1980s, various neoconservatives on foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s, Bill Bennett in the 1980s on education, and Al Gore on environmental issues in the 1990s. Excepting Gore, these figures often purposefully set themselves up as outside of elite circles of political technocrats, even while some move in those circles. These ideological thinkers obtain followers, in the form of viewers, listeners, and readers. As they become media celebrities, either as elites or go-to referents for technocratic elites, some become resented by regular people who lean in other directions politically.
In the twentieth century those ideological figures have, nevertheless, passed through the necessary institutions to give them elite credentials. They have bachelors and master’s degrees, and sometimes doctorates. They are certified ideological specialists and elites. Today’s Dwight Moody most certainly has an MBA and teaches courses, part-time, at an Ivy. Today’s Billy Sunday is a graduate from Bob Jones University and has a master’s in theology from somewhere. On examples from more recent history, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a BA, and BDiv, and a PhD. Phyllis Schalfly had a BA and JD. Newt Gingrich has a BA, MA, and a PhD. Ann coulter has a BA and a JD. Richard Spencer, of Racist/”Alt-Right” fame, has a BA and MA from the University of Chicago–and studied for a doctorate at Duke University. As an exception that proves the rule, only Rush Limbaugh has just a high school diploma. These figures have avoided general resentment as elites by fostering vernacular connections with large constituencies. They posture as political outsiders, for better or for worse. Those who self-identify as conservatives do this better than most self-identified liberals.
For large swaths of the twentieth century—most all of it, in fact—progressives and liberals have been content to be identified with the mechanisms of meritocracy, explicitly and implicitly. Most often associated with the Democratic Party, those progressive and liberals have earned the taint of elitism because of that belief. The belief in merit earns the resentment of anti-elitists because of it is often accompanied by a sense of entitlement. Merits entitle one to power and leadership.
I do not mean to assert that some liberal and progressive politicians have not overcome this formula, or association. In terms of the middle and late twentieth century political history, exceptional liberal leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jesse Jackson, and Jimmy Carter come to mind. Bill Clinton wore his wonkism and technocratic tendencies proudly, but assuaged them with appealing vernacular speech. Obama embodied, as an outlier, the notion that a meritorious elite could obtain power over America’s anti-elitist tendencies. But his unusual oratory, engagement, and tendency to avoid the attitude of entitlement (i.e. his trait of cautiousness) helped his cause as a politician. These exceptions aside, meritocratic elitism has generally limited the appeal, and electability, of progressive and liberal candidates nationally.
How has the idea of meritocracy obtained such a high status in progressive and liberal circles? The answer many would give, with an exasperation of obviousness, is that hard work means ability and skill. Your merits earn you the right of deference and status. Hard-won experience, working to learn, and obtaining credentials should result in jobs higher up the chain of command. Ability has been proven. You are qualified, or perhaps the most qualified. The Protestant/Puritan work ethic meant diligence to Anglo-Saxon and northern European descendants in the United States, where it was also transformed into a kind of guarantee of material rewards and success. This implied but earned elitism, an elevation due to qualifications, sits uncomfortably with the demos, with democratic movements and aspirations.
Historiography and History: Liu, Young, and Meritocracy
Meritocracy is a recent invention of the West. It is a topic that has not, to my knowledge, been well-covered by U.S. intellectual historians. I know of only one recent work that explicitly addresses the topic: Catherine Liu’s American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique. What follows is a meditation grounded on that work, but I welcome more suggestions on this topic.
Liu situates her discussion of meritocracy in the rise of standardized testing, vocationalism in American schools, and the legacy of Progressive scientific authority. Although the idea is of meritocracy may be older, the term is a recent invention in history. Liu and others trace it to British labour politician and sociologist Michael Young, and his 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy. In Liu’s summation, Young imagines a future system where human capital and national brain power of Britain, in 2033, has been more efficiently extracted, utilized, and managed by national testing (i.e. IQ tests). The system is called “meritocracy.” On the plus side, it destroys the feudal problem of inheritance. As a negative byproduct of its construction, or unintended consequence, the system also destroys the ideal of equality. Capitalism and the nation replace both feudalism and representative democracy with a homegrown technocratic elite. In 2033, however, an “irrational,” “populist revolt” destroys the system while a “smug, well-educated” man properly narrates events. Civil war trumped civil service.
Despite being a satire, Liu properly notes how British and U.S. society had already adopted this kind of system before, during, and after the appearance of Young’s novel. In Liu’s words of summation and assessment (American Idyll blurs the line, at times, between the novel and real historical events), “the system of education had become a sinister pipeline of promotion for gifted and talented working-class children and underrepresented minorities.” (I’m sure this includes women too.) Liu continues: “Young described familiar figures of a global educated elite who were sophisticated, restless, ambitious, and jet-setting.”  You might call them meritocratic cosmopolitans, though less oriented toward a world society or polis/demos than using, or bending, the world toward their purposes. A global elite with highly distorted cosmopolitan traits.
Liu notes that Young was interviewed in 2001 about his book, wherein he assessed the fate of his neologism. While he meant the term (in Liu’s words) to “communicate a philological and political monstrosity”—a “repellent form of social and economic organization”—it had instead become “a laudatory moniker.” The satirical idea had become, at once, the norm and an ideal. Young regretted that the current system filtered the best “according to education’s narrow band of values.” That sieve functioned to reward the abilities and resources of elites, thereby reproducing, in the main, a class of increasing inbred technocrats and bureaucrats. The construction of a meritocratic utopia created, alongside, a dystopian underclass, unheard and underrepresented in this new “representative” state, trapped in poverty.
In this context, apparent anti-intellectualism is, then, most often an anti-elitism of resistance, ironically, to a technocratic hegemonic meritocracy that has subverted democracy. This situation traps the anti-elitists within an apparent undemocratic frame. How do the resistors escape the rigged prison-house of meritocracy? If they are peaceful, they elect an apparent anarchist. If not peaceful, then by violence according to Michael Young.
In American Idyll, Liu moves the story back to Hofstadter and his lament for the loss of liberal education ideals in the formal system of K-12 schooling and in higher education. Liu sympathizes with Hofstadter’s critique of the ideals of life adjustment, vocationalism, and professionalism that now dominate education at all levels. She concludes: “Hofstadter’s theory of American anti-intellectualism links popular resent of pseudopersonalized education to the logic of administered inequality masquerading as the management of educational opportunity.” A revolt against this “meritocratic” system is more of a theory than reality in Liu’s book. It’s a potential horizon, even as the first rumblings occurred as she wrote the book, when Occupy Wall Street specifically made student debt and educational outcomes an explicit issue. Liu’s focus, in the book, are wannabe populists within academia—academic anti-elitists. Their existence made it easy, from the 1970s to 1990s, for conservatives and neoconservatives to be the anti-technocrats. They could denounce liberal elitism and denigrate the inauthentic cultural politics of liberals.
How does this relate to the present? There are no clear lines from the past to today. Yet the rhymes and similarities are, I think, inescapable. Societies are not easily rerouted from their deep currents. This past is situating the present puzzle of anti-elitism disguised as anti-intellectualism.
As conservatives and right-wing demagogues have denounced technocratic liberalism and its imperfectly inclusive meritocratic sieve mechanisms, they constructed, at the same time, an alternative meritocracy of big business. Their credentialed elites, while railing on elite liberalism, created an “alt-right” system (yes, I’m subtly reappropriating term) of meritocracy that also included degrees from high-profile institutions, internships in conservative think tanks, and extended apprenticeships in finance and industry, (ometimes alongside Democratic opposition. The ultimate sign of success in that meritocracy was wealth—a wealth that most often built on past wealth (hence their ability to navigate the meritocracy).
The irony of the conservative and Right-leaning system is that it exists alongside, and in companionship with, the liberal meritocratic system. This enables our political class to draw on similar resources and personnel, creating a sense of continuity and stability while also perpetuating social, economic, and cultural problems.
Yet there are differences. Today’s liberal meritocratic technocrats take their cues from values that date to the Great Society era, especially some modicum of social justice and anti-racism. But those same liberal technocrats value equality of opportunity without respecting, truly, the unequal conditions for those that enter the meritocratic pipeline. The language of hard work dominates liberal circles (as “laziness” does conservative circles), and negates the alleviation of deep and inherited economic inequality.
As the system continues, outbursts against its appear irrational and anti-intellectual to the elites, ideological thinkers, technocrats, and bureaucrats that populate the system—the entrenched political class and its sympathetic observers. But those outbursts are in fact against the whole of those elites, across the political spectrum. Those outbursts by the “less meritorious,” and those unable to navigate the existing meritocracy (i.e. the underclass), are symptomatic of failures in representation and democratic discourse. American leaders have not sufficiently fought against the trends of inequality. The demos and polis live in tension, unable to become a synoikos.
I have not read read Chris Hayes’ 2013 book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Perhaps that book has a stronger historical component than I know? The “after” in the title made me think it was more present than roots oriented. Perhaps, with this post, I’ve simply covered well-trodden ground? Let me know. A simple keyword search of Hayes book (thanks Amazon!) tells me that Richard Hofstadter and Catherine Liu are not covered therein, but Michael Young is.
 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963), 7, 146.
 Hofstadter, 27.
 See this essay by Jeremy Beer for more on Lasch’s work.
 Hofstadter, 65, 91, 145, 362
 Catherine Liu, American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011). In 2013, I broached the subject of meritocracy at the blog, in relation to my reassessment of Richard Pells’ The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. Here was my comment:
“Speaking of the period’s uniqueness and its class of elite intellectuals, I wished that Pells had spent some time trying to understand the role of meritocracy in this period. Given the fact that society would be opening up a bit for white males (via GI Bill) and white women (given their out-of-home work during the war), and that the 1940s and 1950s set the stage for a larger opening in the 1960s, the transition to and inculcation of “merit” would’ve been a worthy exploration. Pells broached the topic when, recounting the thought of Daniel Bell, Bell noted (in Pells’ words) that the “transformation of American capitalism [from industrialism to late, state-sponsored capitalism] meant that one’s access to the boardroom depended not on lineage but on education, ambition, and efficient performance—qualifications potentially available to anyone” (p. 142). What did merit mean to Macdonald, Mills, McCarthy, Hofstadter, Riesman, Hartz, Whyte, etc.? Was it an illusion? That was most certainly Mills’ argument. If Pells’ actors simply didn’t discuss it, that by itself would have been noteworthy.**”
 Liu, 28-29. You can learn more about Michael Young’s life and legacy at this link. The OED dates the term to 1956, a few years before Young’s book. But by 1960 we have meritocracy, meritocratic, and meritocrat in the English language. Before that “merit” and related terms had strong theological associations.
 Liu, 29.
 Liu, 29-30.
 Liu, 80.