There is a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-intellect, and this is where Russell Jacoby foundered, in his essay last year about the lack of intellectualism among conservatives. As Peter Lawler notes, it’s shoddily done for want of defining terms, which is a frequent flaw in Chronicle of Higher Ed essays about conservatism.
There is, however, an important grain of truth in Jacoby’s essay, one with which conservative thinkers will need to grapple. The truth is that politicians who claim to lead conservatives in America are by and large an embarrassment morally and intellectually. Even now, on the heels of a sound beating, their chief concerns are with positioning and branding, fine-tuning their polling operations, improving their media presence. The country does not take the ideas they espouse seriously because they themselves cannot be taken seriously.
Last night, if you watched the State of the Union address, you saw two men behind the president. Each has been widely—and rightly—ridiculed for his instability, his vanity, his vacuousness. Given a choice between two fools, it’s unsurprising that voters prefer the one who promises them bread and circuses at no charge, who soothingly assures them there’s plenty of money to pay the tab should it ever come due.
Conservative ideas will not be taken seriously until they are set forth by serious men and women. Only someone with gravity, with a moral center, can begin to undo the damage wrought by both parties, whose operatives have excelled at character-assassination rather than governance, at kicking the can down the road rather than rallying the nation to pay the bills for our own poor judgment.
The anti-intellectual stance of leading conservatives, which Jacoby rightly identified, isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying lack of intellect, in the classical sense, what the Greeks called the nous. It’s a lack of understanding, perception, reason, and intuition. Intellect implies thoughtfulness, attention to the fullness of things. It is as far from tribal allegiance and democratic mob rule as one can get, and in their haste to obscure their own academic pedigrees, putative conservative leaders have abandoned intellect as well, in favor of smooth political machinations.
In the process they’ve cheapened and belittled themselves, which is fitting reward, except that they’ve cheapened the ideas they borrowed from their betters. Which means that now the task of rehabilitating those ideas must fall to serious, thoughtful, inspiring men and women.
And where they are is anyone’s guess.