Donald Trump, Mother Night

Source: Donald Trump, Mother Night


Thoughts on Anti-intellectualism in American Politics

Daniel Rigney’s article, “Three Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism: Rethinking Hofstadter” was something of a game changer for me. It is not that I had never read, listened to, or participated in discussions about anti-intellectualism so much as I had never encountered such a cogent examination of the topic. Based on Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), Rigney is able to break down the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism in the United States into three parts: religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism. I will not summarize the article, as I think it would be well worth it to read it on your own, but I will describe some of the connections I made between types of anti-intellectualism and my own observations of contemporary American politics.

My house is usually flooded with CNN everyday (this is not my choice) and as a result, I am inundated with the peculiarities of American politics. The upcoming presidential election is naturally the big headline these days and I have caught a few Republican and Democratic debates. As an aside, it strikes me as both funny and sad that I have watched more live American leadership debates than I did for this past Canadian election (I caught most Canadian debates on YouTube), but hey, that is just the nature of being Canadian in the age of American dominated mass media.

Now, the Democrats do not exist in a vacuum and are obviously still affected by anti-intellectual tendencies in the U.S., but I am astounded any time I listen to the Republican presidential candidates — Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and of course, the main event, Donald Trump — these people eschew facts and rational discussion as if it is literally a requirement for the presidency. And hey, perhaps in 2016, it is. It makes me feel deeply disturbed and unsettled that a country that affects Canada so immensely politically, economically, and culturally, is so mired in stupidity at the highest political levels.

I saw a great interview featuring President Barack Obama with Vox Media and was ecstatic to listen to him share his insights on the state of the world and American politics in such a comprehensive, critical, and cerebral fashion. I thought to myself, “How great that the US is led by such an intelligent, articulate, and well-educated person who can navigate such complicated issues so effectively. And how sad that these very abilities of his are either largely unappreciated or viciously maligned by the American public.” Trump, on the other hand, can regularly speak to his audience on a third or fourth grade level (Shafer), voicing tired clichés, strange inanities, and vague pronouncements, and move these people to determined political action.

But perhaps, with my elitist bias, I have been too quick to label manners of discourse alien to me as stupid, simply because I am not aware of their historical and cultural sources. Rigney’s sections on religious anti-rationalism and populist anti-elitism really helped me to understand some of the historical sources of contemporary American political discourse. For instance, religion and religious expression has always been an important part of American society, and in the early eighteenth century, evangelical Protestant denominations, which are very prominent in contemporary American politics and part of what we call the “Religious Right,” flocked towards more emotional, zealous, and rousing forms of religious expression (Rigney 436). For the Religious Right, there seems to be a strong connection between preferred styles of religious and political expression. Someone like Trump arguably elicits regular emotional reactions that a Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama do not, never mind that for many observers, those emotions are something resembling fury. In addition, anti-elitism in the U.S. is rooted largely in the specific developments of their democratic project and populist movements, and leads to what I think is a healthy mistrust of class based interests on the one hand, but also an unreasonable mistrust of knowledge and erudition on the other (Rigney 441). Overall, I agree with Rigney that in order to weaken anti-intellectualism, we first have to make efforts to understand it.

I am both excited and terrified to see where the United States’ political adventures will take us because I know that as a Canadian, I will be at least partly along for the ride. At least I can watch HBO’s Veep for some much needed comedic relief.


Rigney, Daniel. “Three Kinds Of Anti-Intellectualism: Rethinking Hofstadter.” Sociological Inquiry 61.4 (1991): 434-451. Web.

Shafer, Jack. “Donald Trump Talks Like A Third-Grader.” POLITICO Magazine. N.p., 2015. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

Vox. “Obama on the State of the World: The Extended Vox Conversation.” YouTube. 9 Feb. 2015. Web.