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Why Conservative Intellectuals Are Anti-Intellectual

The heart of the problem for conservatives is this: they fear too much intellectualism will lead people to question authority and hierarchy.

“Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force.”

Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France

“There is a natural instinct in unthinking people—who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfillment in the world as it is—to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born. This instinct, which I have attempted to translate into the self-conscious language of political doctrine, is rooted in human nature.”

Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism

“You might enjoy that philosophy class in college. I took one myself. Existentialism. But have I ever once really applied it toward making money? No. And neither will you. You might think it’s cool to know about Nietzsche’s übermensch. But that knowledge will not pay your rent. It’s tempting to think about the swanky parties where you may one day be swilling expensive wine and waxing on about whatever useless major you took. Think, instead, of that house you’d rather be living in. Or the travels you’d like to embark upon. In order to have those things? Money. You need to make it. Not give it to a professor. Who’s never made it. Catching on? Skills. Get them. Trade schools are far more valuable than earning a degree in Art History. No, they’re probably not more valuable than a medical degree. But we’re not talking about doctors, lawyers or chemical engineers here. We’re talking about you people who think gender studies with an art history minor is a good decision. Stop it.”

Courtney Kirchoff, Louder with Crowder, “Dear High School Students: Don’t Go to College. No Seriously.”

In Reflections on the Revolution in France Edmund Burke denounced the “leaders of the legislative clubs and coffee-houses [who] intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability [speak] with the most sovereign contempt of the rest of the world.” These “literary caballers and intriguing philosophers” had stirred up nothing but trouble. Their arrogant confidence in the power of their own reason to both apprehend and remake the world had transformed itself into an insurrection against all the vested powers which had ordered the world. A result of their pretentious scribblings was that

“[…] [A]ll the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman…”

As authority was radically questioned in the name of liberty and equality for all, the sublime complementary hierarchies which bound society together were dissolved. The servants turned against their masters, soldiers against their officers, the “swinish multitude” against the aristocracy. Everything turned to disorder.

Ever since then, conservative writers have looked with contempt upon intellectuals who are critical of the right’s preferred politics. Sometimes they can even run in the opposite direction by romanticizing the intellectual’s supposed opposites: uneducated masses (at least as long as they don’t want progressive change, in which case ordinary people swiftly become Burke’s ‘swinish multitude’). William F. Buckley, Jr., famously said he’d rather be governed by the “first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” In his book Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges, Robert Bork snarled at the “new class” of liberal intellectuals who despised the mere presence of any conservatives within their midst. Donald Trump famously boasted about how he “love[d] the poorly educated” more than those stuffy headed liberal technocrats. Beyond anti-intellectualism as the source of endless lamentations (an ironic number of these complaints are about how everyone complains these days), the anti-intellectual and anti-academic screed has become something of a minor literature on the right. These range from the scholarly (600-plus-page anesthetics like Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society) to self-congratulatory rants (the Babylon Bee-worthy wit of Gad Saad’s The Parasitic Mind) to books that should only be inflicted upon criminals as a punishment of last resort (Mark Levin’s American Marxism, reviewed here for those who dare).

The obverse of the right’s strident anti-intellectualism has been a pronounced sense of envy and even resentiment directed against the alleged status and influence of liberal and progressive intellectuals. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, often regarded as kicking off the 20th century American conservative movement by presenting it as part of a longstanding Anglo-intellectual tradition, opened with a long discussion of J.S. Mill’s famous description of conservatives as the “stupid party.” Decades later, Roger Scruton made the same point, highlighting that few conservatives have become intellectuals, a fact which has led to a lack of appreciation for the “great tradition.” In his book Conservatism: The Fight for A Tradition, Edmund Fawcett expresses a view that made Kirk and Scruton anxious: that when “looking into the conservative mind, it often seems … to be a brilliant repertoire of counterblows against liberals and suspicion of democrats but without large aims or principles of its own.” As Fawcett points out, this reactive quality contributes to many conservative intellectuals’  thinly veiled sense of social inferiority toward their counterparts, a belief that their ideas are not taken seriously or rewarded by a society instead ever-more impressed by nihilistic liberalism and even socialism. For all its pomp and ceremony, Kirk’s Conservative Mind also expressed the view that, over their long history, conservative intellectuals had lost nearly every battle they’d fought.

The rhetoric about conservatives being history’s losers—no matter how gilded their actual positions in society may be—persists. William F. Buckley, Jr., a man of extraordinary affluence who published his first book, God and Man at Yale, at age 25 and rocketed to fame,  long characterized conservative intellectuals as marginalized figures. This was a view which Paul Joseph Watson famously reiterated decades later where he described “conservatism” as the new “counter-culture” in between videos defending the cops and poo-pooing modern art. This can feed into the right’s perception of being so culturally marginalized that even “conservatism” may no longer be enough to turn back the tide. As one commentator asked, in a world that’s “rotten to the core … what exactly are we trying to conserve?”

The Basis of Conservative Anti-Intellectualism

There are two main reasons the right has long adopted an anti-intellectual attitude (with the huge qualification that even the most scathing critics like Sowell carve out a big exception for right-wing intellectuals). The first relates to a defense of structural hierarchies, and the second to a need to diagnose social unrest as emerging from intellectual rather than structural causes. 

Firstly, one of the right’s major commitments is to defend their preferred hierarchical structures of power. Writers like Scruton like to denote power with the term “authority,” to which we owe “allegiance.” He might well have used the term “submission” instead. Now, conservatives by no means agree on which hierarchical structure is the preferred one. Historically, European conservatives like Robert Filmer and Joseph de Maistre defended submission to throne and altar, while their American counterparts like John Adams or John C. Calhoun were more likely to talk in terms of property or racial supremacy. In the modern day, conservatives defend hierarchies of merit, moral virtue, national chauvinism, and many more. Sometimes the differences in preferences can be sharp enough to prompt serious internal divisions: the modern day GOP has long been embroiled in a not-so-quiet civil war between its neoliberal and internationalist wing and the long ascendent national conservatives and post-liberals. An especially nasty example of this was the spat between neoconservative author David French and the post-liberal founder of Compact, Sohrab Ahmari, which kicked off when Ahmari published the polemical essay “Against David French-ism” (no points for figuring out the topic). While these internal fights can be serious, the right will unite around the shared conviction that, qua Kirk, the “narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism” of the left is to be rejected for a belief that some are more deserving and so deserving of more. This can include more money for the rich, more power for virtuous religious groups, and more cultural clout. And, of course, more political authority. At best, a liberal conservative might follow Barry Goldwater in saying that the people are equal before God and (formally) the law and in no other respect.

Now, redefining power and privilege, which people usually are skeptical of, as legitimate “authority” which people will happily submit to is typically no easy task. Some more populist  conservatives, like Patrick Devlin in The Enforcement of Morals, will conclude that the average “man on the Clapham omnibus” (or Joe Six-Pack if we’re speaking American) is basically right-leaning in his heart, and so can be trusted not to stir the pot unless strongly agitated. Devlin-style populists suspect that the average person will conform to the ways of the “unthinking” people Scruton admires, those who will bear the burdens life imposes on them without becoming political or threatening authority with “disintegration.”

But just as often, conservatives will regard large swaths of the population with suspicion, seeing them as all too susceptible to dangerous left-wing rhetoric which promises them more power and status. This naturally marries very easily to the instinctive elitism of conservatism, and its conviction that (as Friedrich Hayek put it in an essay critical of the right) there are “recognizably superior” people. The combination results in a vindictive froth. In their more typically anti-democratic moments, conservatives will characterize ordinary people as a vulgar “mass” who, as Profesor Cornelius Adrian Comstock Vermeule put it, will support “left liberalism” as if it were a theology. Or ordinary people become, to the lament of Mitt Romney, the 47 percent of the population who somehow believe it is their own government’s “responsibility to care for them.”

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This makes conservatives constantly anxious that the authorities they want to defend will be intellectually exposed as mere power and privilege. After all, many of the ruled may decide to take issue with their rulers. The moment authority can be intellectually conceived of as mere power which anyone from top to bottom can criticize, it loses its sheen and becomes open to contestation, which is a situation most conservatives disdain above all else. It’s why Joseph de Maistre, in his polemic against Rousseau, claimed that

“[…] [H]uman reason reduced to its own resources is perfectly worthless, not only for creating but also for preserving any political or religious association, because it only produces disputes, and, to conduct himself well, man needs not problems but beliefs. His cradle should be surrounded by dogmas, and when his reason is awakened, it should find all his opinions ready-made, at least all those relating to his conduct. Nothing is so important to him as prejudices. Let us not take this word in a bad sense. It does not necessarily mean false ideas, but only, in the strict sense of the word, opinions adopted before any examination. Now these sorts of opinions are man’s greatest need, the true elements of his happiness, and the Palladium of empires. Without them, there can be neither worship, nor morality, nor government.”

The heart of the problem for conservatives is this: they instinctively fear that excess and critical intellectualism will induce anyone and everyone to “submit” authority to the “discussion” of each individual. In other words, the individual might have thoughts and ideas that lead them to question authority figures like kings and presidents. Imagine that!

Secondly, because they are vested in apologizing for hierarchical structures of power, conservatives will typically need to offer an explanation for why many people may find these structures dissatisfying. This need becomes especially intense in places where huge numbers of people may find themselves gravitating to the left. In his The Idea of a Christian Society, T.S. Eliot expresses deep anxiety about decaying cultural standards, and ascribes those to the cheapness of democratic life which “[licences] the opinions of the most foolish, [subtitutes] instruction for education, [and] by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom the upstart rather than the qualified.” Throughout, he expresses worry these egalitarian ideas will prove so intoxicating and even flattering that they will prove irremovable. 

Now, the more ambitious right-wing authors may occasionally see these moments of crisis, where the left is on the march and the “most foolish” are about to rule over the wise, as opportunities to rethink many of their strategic convictions. As Corey Robin points out in The Reactionary Mind, the greatest right-wing thinkers have usually reserved their most toxic venom for flabby elites who have failed to contain egalitarian movements, and demand a new superior class take their place. They may very well decide that simply rebuilding or reconsecrating traditional authorities is no longer possible or enough, and that more radical actions are needed to combat egalitarianism. This may take the form of doubling down on even more extreme authoritarianism and inequality. “Aristocratic radicals” and “Conservative Revolutionaries” like Nietzsche and Heidegger fall into this camp. Or conservatives may even start to ape progressive rhetoric and policies to try and undermine the appeal of the left. Conservative politicians like Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismark introduced paternalistic reforms which conserved power in their hands, but they softened its impact on groups singled out to receive privileges that vested them in the established order. This can take even more insidious forms. White supremacist politics in the U.S. have long flourished through these kinds of efforts to make every white man, no matter how poor, an aristocrat of sorts. As South Carolina Senator John Townsend put it:

“[T]he color of white man is now, in the south, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro; and although Cuffy or Sambo may be immensely his superior in wealth, may have his thousands deposited in bank, as some of them have, and may be the owner of many slaves, as some of them are, yet the poorest non-slaveholder, being a white man, is his superior in the eye of the law; may serve and command in the militia; may sit upon juries, to decide upon the rights of the wealthiest in the land; may give his testimony in Court, and may cast his vote, equally with the largest slaveholder, in the choice of his rulers. In no country in the world does the poor white man, whether slaveholder or non-slaveholder, occupy so enviable a position as in the slaveholding States of the South.”

But far more often, the mass of conservative intellectuals will project blame for faltering support onto the machinations of liberal and progressive intellectuals, who have bewitched or corrupted the easily manipulated mass into buying into their utopian projects. This takes on a lot of different forms, many of which combine the mercurial mixture of populism and elitism that reflects conservatives’ perception of cultural marginality and simultaneous defense of hierarchical power and privilege. Sometimes liberal and progressive intellectuals are conceived of as possessing tremendous cultural power—usually far in excess of what they actually do. Jordan Peterson and James Lindsay’s hysterics about a lack of “gratitude” fostered by post-modern neo-Marxists is typical. Sometimes blame is shifted to the people for being so easily swayed by false egalitarian promises. In 2016, Thomas Sowell even integrated both these rhetorical tropes together when he (inaccurately) declared that the electorate had been “misinformed” by liberals and so should sit the election out, a tune he immediately changed when Trump won. In all these instances, the underlying strategy is to blame intellectuals for the dissatisfaction within society, which conveniently abnegates the right and its policies from any responsibility for creating problems in the first place, let alone resolving them through reform.

It is partly for this reason that someone like Karl Marx was relentlessly critical of “idealism” in political thought, which locates the source of social problems purely in the mind and culture while leaving actual institutions and practices untouched. Such “idealism” is the purview of those for whom the materiality of the human world and its practical problems are largely kept well at bay most of the time, and even regarded as boring or plebeian. And it’s also why the Jordan Petersons of the right will insist that “beliefs are the world in a more than metaphysical sense” while chastising leftists who believe they could possibly have enough knowledge of the environment to take steps toward saving it. When beliefs “are the world,” what matters to conservatives is ensuring that the mass of people hold the right beliefs and are insulated from the wrong ones. In this way, order may be preserved, and we can forget about trivial and boring things like preserving the planet or providing universal healthcare.

What Role do Conservative Intellectuals Play (And How Can the Left Confront Them)?

The initial response of the political right to intellectual attacks was repression and censorship. This ranged from cracking down on demands for basic liberal rights to expression and assembly on the continent, to simply banning socialist parties and literature when they emerged. In the 20th century much of this was given a distinctively “Red Scare” as when the fascist regime threw Antonio Gramsci in jail to “stop this brain from functioning” for 20 years, or during the U.S.’s McCarthy era. Today things are far less draconian, though in the U.S. we’ve seen an alarming number of anti-critical theory bills passed in red states and a revisiting of William Buckley’s thesis that academic freedom isn’t the be-all and end-all. 

But, despite these efforts, it very quickly became apparent that the challenges posed by liberalism and socialism—the “enemies” of conservatism, according to Roger Scruton”—couldn’t just be silenced. They needed to be responded to on their own terms. What emerged was a genuinely impressive effort to compose a canon of right-wing intellectuals and ideas which could compete on the same level as its rivals. In the U.S., this effort to compose such a canon began with Russell Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind, which has since inspired a nigh yearly barrage of expository tomes of highly variable quality with rather repetitive titles like The Right or The Right Side of History. Roger Scruton in particular was a one man industry on this front, publishing The Meaning of Conservatism, How to Be a Conservative, and Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, amongst other books. And Scruton’s are probably still the best summaries available if progressives want readable summaries of the tradition from the perspective of its sharpest proponent.

I say the right’s intellectual tradition is genuinely impressive because it is. Leftists seriously underestimate the right if they presume its sometimes silly anti-intellectualism means they’re incapable of defending their positions when push comes to shove. Unfortunately, until quite recently, leftists largely didn’t spend a lot of time either learning about these figures or responding to them systematically. Fortunately, over the past 20 years several major books have been written or rediscovered which do just that; some of the best are Ted Honderich’s Conservatism, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, and Nathan Robinson’s very own Responding to the Right. But probably, the perennial classic is Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction, which diagnoses the tendency of right-wing intellectuals to respond to all democratic and egalitarian arguments by appealing to the rhetorical tropes of perversity, futility, and jeopardy.  

Adding to Hirschman’s analysis of how the right’s intellectuals argue against what they oppose, we can talk a little bit about how they argue for what they admire—in particular, how they defend forms of hierarchical power and privilege through various forms of rhetorical sublimation and naturalization.

Sublimation is a rhetorical technique of trying to invest one’s argumentative idealizations with transcendent qualities. Transcendent qualities are attached to the profane (worldly or non-sacred) institutions, beliefs, and hierarchies which the right values. This gives the impression that these institutions, beliefs, and social hierarchies participate in, or are even the creation of, something more sacred and powerful than human reason. Sublimation will try to attach transcendent qualities to conservatives’ preferred idealizations, and will usually find the right adopting a florid style highlighting the depth and sacredness of their convictions about hierarchical inequality. In doing so, this can make the hierarchies appear necessary and even divinely sanctioned. This gives the systems of power conservatives are invested in a kind of metaphysical or theological necessity that they will usually argue could only be challenged by the prideful or narcissistic, while acquiescing to them is regarded as dutiful and moral. Much of the “depth” which conservative intellectuals attribute to themselves stems from the belief that they are sensitive and obedient to these transcendent qualities in a way that their opponents aren’t. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell lays out a so-called “tragic” (cynical is a better word) view of life where there will always be unfairness and injustice, and no amount of utopian finessing can fix it. Sowell goes on to reprimand left-intellectuals for rejecting this tragic view and so demonstrating a lack of “wisdom…the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience and judgement in a way to produce a coherent understanding.” The peak of human wisdom is, apparently, opposition to welfare, enthusiasm about throwing people into prisons, and smugly supporting the war in Iraq (and then being equally smug in walking back that position).The ideological appeal of attaching transcendent qualities to power in order to sublimate it into authority was not lost on Burke:

“Such sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them. Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of political institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary in order to build up that wonderful structure. Man, whose prerogative it is to be in a great degree a creature of his own making, and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation. But whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he should as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection.”

These transcendent qualities are usually further dolled up with a mysterious and even paradoxical quality to make them appear even more dazzling in the eyes of the beholder. The transcendent qualities of sublime idealizations are both comprehensible to human reason while exceeding the limitations of its understanding—usually just comprehensible enough so that we may submit to their excellence, but not so transparent that they could be scrutinized and or criticized. This can even appear in some rather strange places. As Quinn Slobodian pointed out in his book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, many of the most ardent 20th century defenders of capitalism described the market as a kind of benevolent sublime idealization. We could know that the market allocated resources efficiently, and perhaps even rewarded merit and condemned vice like a secularized hand of God. But no one but the prideful would claim to understand the market’s workings so as to consciously direct it toward the public welfare.

Naturalization takes a different route than sublimation, but with the same objective in mind. Naturalization also attempts to make the right’s idealizations seem necessary, but in a more down to earth way. You’ll usually see the right adopt a more fatalistic and even world weary tone, and contrast it with the naïve optimism of the left. Here conservatives may even try to describe the hierarchical divisions they defend as unfortunate or unfair, but nonetheless so baked into the natural order of the world that only a fool, a charlatan, or a megalomaniac could hope to change them. And they will usually chastise the left for being utopian in trying to do so, while quietly ignoring that they are the ones doing everything they can to prevent progressive goals from being realized.

Defenses of patriarchal institutions in particular have usually leaned very heavily on the naturalization of unequal gender privileges. If one wants to understand why contemporary conservatives are so fixated on defending traditional notions of sex and gender through (often very misleading) appeals to biology, it is in part a reflex on this longstanding habit. In his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the English conservative James Fitzjames Stephen argued against the legal equality for women agitated for by the liberal socialist John Stuart Mill. Stephen pointed out that the

“physical differences between the two sexes affect every part of the human body, from the hair of the head to the soles of the feet, from the size and density of the bones to the texture of the brain and the character of the nervous system. Ingenious people may argue about anything, and Mr. Mill does say a great number of things about women which, as I have already observed, I will not discuss; but all the talk in the world will never shake the proposition that men are stronger than women in every shape. They have greater muscular and nervous force, greater intellectual force, greater vigour of character. This general truth, which has been observed under all sorts of circumstances and in every age and country, has also in every age and country led to a division of labour between men and women, the general outline of which is as familiar and as universal as the general outline of the differences between them.”

He went on to argue that any vain grant of legal equality to women would perversely make them even more subordinate since, forced to compete with men without patriarchal protection and gentility, natural inequalities would prove lethal and reduce women to being men’s “slaves and drudges.” More vulgar naturalistic defences of hierarchy have ranged from Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinian view of life as fundamentally a competition where the best rise and the weak fall based on their abilities, to Arthur de Gobineau’s systematic efforts to justify inequality between the “races.” While you’ll rarely see anything this overtly racist today, authors like Charles Murray and pundits like Stefan Molyneux have tried to do the same by drawing links between IQ scores, success in the market, and race while largely ignoring any inconvenient social factors.

Now, sublimation and naturalization are not mutually exclusive rhetorical techniques, and some of the more enthusiastic conservatives may even try to combine them together. Jordan Peterson works at this all the time, sometimes depicting hierarchy and inequality as a raw natural fact from lobsters upwards and sometimes describing it as something “deeply and mysteriously built into the structure of natural reality itself” like a cosmic or divine law. Oftentimes, it is some combination of these two which can prove especially politically potent and dangerous, since it helps the right present itself as simultaneously more profound and more down-to-earth, less fixated on the mundane world, and also less entranced by “abstract” ideas than the left. But whatever combination or flavor on offer, as Hirschman points out, the right will usually depict any attempt to confront their sublimated or naturalized hierarchies in the same language. It will bring about perverse side effects, it’s hopelessly futile, or it will damage something else we have reason to cherish.

The important thing to stress about all of this is how wrong the right usually is on these points.  For all the ink spilled, much of the political right’s tropes are more (so much more) heat than light, miles wide and inches deep. More often than not, conservatives have been very wrong about either the sublime or natural qualities of the hierarchies they’ve idealized. Burk and de Maistre both warned of dire consequences if the aristocratic orders they defended were disturbed and extensive political rights granted to the lower orders. Just two centuries later you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person even on the political right who’d be willing to defend their positions. James Fitzjames Stephen predicted that women would be enslaved if granted equality under the law; since the 20th century, 60 women have won Nobel prizes, and we are all better off for it. Conservatives ate up Hayek’s arguments that any substantial attempt to create a welfare state would lay bricks on the road to serfdom, and yet the famous redistributive Nordic countries are more equal, democratic, and free than any others in the world. Buckley warned of the “grave moral challenge” faced by the south, chastised those who felt Black people should get the vote, and waxed lyrical about how whites were the “advanced race.” A few years later, even he made an about-turn when people came to regard his racial supremacism as a monstrous view. Roger Scruton railed against the “problems posed by the large-scale immigration” of people to the United Kingdom, and now the son of two Hindu migrants, Rishi Sunak, is the leader of the British Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The list can go on and on.

Conservatives love pointing out, as a knockdown blow against socialist aspirations, that Karl Marx was wrong in predicting the spread of worldwide communism. They might be advised to look more closely at their own tradition’s voluminous predictions, so many of which, in the end, amounted to nihilistic sound and fury.

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