Recently at breakfast, a friend of mine remarked with feigned frustration that President Obama had selected a Princeton Professor, Alan Krueger, rather than a Harvard economist to head his Council of Economic Advisors. Much to my surprise, another person at the table offered sarcastically, “Yeah, that’s just what we need, another Ivy-League academic making policy in the White House. Whenever we do that, things get worse, regardless of party.”
It may be unnecessary to say that this person was Republican, but that is not without significance. Though the mantle of anti-intellectual populism has been passed from party to party over the years, right now it rests squarely in the hands of the GOP. Conservative America’s pervasive skepticism—if not flat-out rejection—of the beliefs of the intellectual elite is materially harmful. It is this strain of thought that leads to the vilification of science among some circles in the Republican Party, ultimately resulting in a destructively cavalier attitude towards carbon emissions and global warming. It allows a quarter of Americans to disregard evolution despite its nearly universal acceptance among those who know what it actually is. Furthermore, when a candidate can be maligned for academic and intellectual accomplishments, not only is the quality of political discourse in our republic debased, but so is the quality of its leadership.
One recent high-profile example of anti-intellectual nonsense in our political discourse was directed at someone whom many would claim has not earned the right to receive anti-intellectual attacks: George W. Bush. Rick Perry, in order to sure up his conservative credentials, contrasted himself with the notoriously profligate ex-president by saying, “I went to Texas A&M. He went to Yale.” At face value it is a statement of apparent fact, but it is pregnant with meaning. To conservatives emotionally scarred by Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” Perry is offering an explanation of how someone who shared his no-apologies demeanor and Texas swagger could be such a lightweight conservative. Clearly, Bush was either corrupted at Yale, or the same factors that made him spend the country into oblivion also led him to think going to Yale was a good idea. Perry, not unlike Palin back when she loved to talk about “real America,” is trying to appropriate the distrust conservatives have for east-coast institutions, higher learning, and those select Gomorrahs where the two combine to bolster his ‘common-man’ reputation.
The delicious irony here is that it was George W. Bush’s father who in 1988 attempted to capitalize on anti-Ivy-League political rhetoric in a notoriously ridiculous way. In a sentence, our forty-first president demonstrated the absurdity of attaching political value-judgments to someone’s status as the graduate of an elite university. At the 1988 Republican National Convention, this multi-millionaire, Yale-educated senator’s son derided Governor Dukakis’ foreign policy as “born in Harvard Yard’s Boutique.” Aside from the fact that Dukakis attended Harvard Law School, which does not entail any time spent on Harvard Yard, Bush’s statement is self-evidently absurd. Dukakis was the son of a Greek immigrant and a famously popular governor who could in no way be construed as more distant from the people than then-Vice President Bush.
Perhaps there was a time when attending an institution like Harvard signified a distance from the elusive “common man” or “common woman,” but one look at the life stories of the likes of Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke ’75, Michael Dukakis, or Deval Patrick ’78 quickly dispels this myth insofar as it applies today. Yet the question remains as to whether there is any correlation between “commonness” and the promulgation of policy that benefits “common” people. The careers of both Presidents Roosevelt seem to suggest not, while the humbly educated and lovably everyman Ronald Regan pursued policies that led to drastic increases in income inequality.
So what, after all, is wrong ivy-educated policymakers? If the implicit claim of those who attack candidates based on their prestigious education is that somehow these institutions harm their students by filling them with false or destructive ideas, then I would encourage them to demonstrate the superior policies of their chosen set. If the claim is that the very fact of attending such a university proves that a candidate cannot understand his or her constituents, then I point to such examples as Bill Clinton. Yet, if the claim is that students at these universities cannot be relied upon to espouse the kind of unwavering, slavish obedience to the most hard-line brand of conservative political and religious doctrine, then I guess they might have a point.
Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.