Anti-intellectualism or the dismissal of truth, fact, and science has been in sharp focus over the last four years, thanks, in large part, to President Donald Trump. Whether he’s tweeting about “FAKE NEWS,” or falsely proclaiming that he has “won the election,” Trump himself has been one of the most prominent players in the anti-intellectualism movement in recent years, and it’s greatly hampered the American public’s ability to know and understand what is true and what is not.
Yet Trump is merely a bump in the road of the long history of anti-intellectualism in America. Anti-intellectualism has been used by totalitarian governments to keep the public in the dark. It’s been used by authoritarian regimes in history, including everyone from Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Robert Mugabe, Nicolás Maduro, and Slobodan Milosevic. That fact alone offers a frightening glimpse of how dangerous anti-fact, anti-science, and anti-truth movements can be.
Here’s how we got here, steps we can take to protect ourselves from falling for the falsehoods, and what experts argue we need to do next to recover from this period of fakery.
How did we get here?
While it may seem like it’s a relatively new phenomenon, universal mistrust of experts, intellectuals, journalists, and media alike has been around since the very inception of the United States. It’s like a character flaw that has become a part of our DNA and a mark of pride for many. It’s also a complex and winding path that got us to this point.
As Richard Hofstadter, a famous historian, notes in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, everyone from Davy Crockett to Henry Adams embodied the idea of anti-intellectualism and highlighted the value that even early Americans put on the everyman over the expert. In his book, he points to religion’s role and the focus on superstition over science as the early harbingers of the now-ingrained American mentality. America was, after all, founded by the Puritans, a conservative religious group that came to the New World to escape the persecution they faced in England.
Hofstadter notes that Americans have always placed greater value on physical prowess and practical training, industriousness, and the kind of self-reliance men like Adam Smith (the “Father of Capitalism”) touted over intellectual pursuits. Commercial success, brought about by hard work, was valued and became increasingly ingrained in the collective American psyche.
As America grew and progressed towards the modern era, however, a greater value (and resulting barrier to entry) grew up around securing commercial success, in the form of education. Specifically, college requirements for higher-paying jobs. With the average cost of one year at a national college hovering just above $41,000, a tremendous gap opened between those who could afford to go to college and those who simply could not. That, in turn, has created a more significant gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Add into the mix politicians seeking to appeal to a broad base, who then play on that disparity and call out “elites” who can afford to attend college, making them seem evil and foreign, and thus, loathable.
Like any complex topic, it’s also important to understand how the news media has evolved to contribute to this movement. Many of us grew up watching the nightly news with our parents on television. Each night, the anchor, whether it was Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, delivered the news in serious and almost deadpan tones. There was gravitas to it. There was no such thing as the internet or social media. Newspapers and magazines were everywhere, and a full-time staff regularly fact-checked the stories that were published in them or run on television.
With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, thanks in large part to the creation of CNN (a company that I spent ten years working for as a journalist), a demand to fill the airwaves evolved. Feeding the never-ending hunger for the latest and often most dramatic news is an incredibly difficult void to fill. It’s contributed to the changing landscape of truth in this country as a result.
Avoiding the anti-intellectual trap
This all begs the question, what can you do about the anti-intellectual movement? How do we combat exclusion on a national and international level? We start at home by inviting dialog instead of debate, we educate ourselves and our family about how to discover the facts of things we see and read on social media, in the news, and out in the world, and we keep an open and curious mind as best we can, in every situation.
In each of our individual interactions, we need to strive to find a way to cultivate a sense of inquiry and critical thinking, not believe every Facebook post we read, and ask hard questions of our politicians, our leaders, and ourselves. It’s the only way to truly fight against the anti-intellectualism movement on an individual basis.
Can we correct course as a country?
The short answer is yes — but only if we work together. On a community basis, it’s vital that we support access to education for everyone and fundamentally change the way that we see “experts” and the way that opinions are represented in the media and in our community. A diversity of voices from the left, right, and center, engaging in a well-rounded discourse (rather than a debate), could make a world of difference for our democracy and our world.
We need to start by simply paying attention. If we can begin to recognize that we carry stereotypes and hidden agendas around with us in every interaction, we can potentially see that not every Republican, Democrat, Neo-conservative, or Libertarian fits the ideology. We can take lessons from these Republicans who decided to vote against Trump in this election and speak out about their distrust and dislike of his policies. We can open our eyes to the “other side” by bringing awareness to our own prejudices and exposing them to the light.
The truth is that without a concerted effort to heal the wounds that the last four years have deepened and exacerbated, we cannot move forward and make the cultural and societal changes that need to happen to make America a more democratic, fair, and just country once again.
We need to de-escalate the rhetoric, unwind the prejudices, and come to the table as Americans and as humans. Facts, truth, and science all matter tremendously to the future of our society, the future of our children, and the future of our country. It’s time we faced the less desirable parts of our history and ourselves, so that we can listen, learn, and move forward, together.