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The Scourge of Anti-Intellectualism in America

Updated on June 28, 2012

I was struck by a graphic that was posted on Facebook the other day, which was clearly a response to the well-intentioned people who point out spelling errors in the posts of others on social media outlets. The derisive term “Grammar Nazi” is now flung about with impunity (never mind that they confuse grammar with spelling. See? They can’t even get that right).

A simple typo is one thing and perhaps can be overlooked. After all, typos happen, but when someone has put effort in creating a graphic presentation—which they have designed and executed and evaluated—and it contains a gross misspelling, well that is quite another. It begs to be pointed out. It cries to be corrected. But when you do, you’re a “Grammar Nazi.” Instead of the person who made the error feeling like they were at best careless or at worst ignorant, it’s the person who points out the error who is at fault, like a child responding to criticism with, “Oh yeah? Well you’re fat.”

But this childish folderol is really symptomatic of a much larger issue, namely, the rampant anti-intellectualism in America today. This notion that, as Isaac Asimov put it, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”


In Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he points out that the roots of anti-intellectualism are many and complex, but there are four causes that come to the forefront: democracy, egalitarianism, business, and evangelicalism.

The number one cause of anti-intellectualism is the double whammy of democracy and egalitarianism. The Jacksonian movement, Hofstadter proposes, arose from a suspicion of expertise and the belief that important government operations were so simple that an average citizen could perform them. Jackson was seen as a man of the people whose practical common sense trumped education or “book smarts.”

Bloody Andrew Jackson

In relating the Jacksonian movement to today’s anti-intellectualism, it’s worth noting that Jackson was an asshole. He was aggressive, fought in duels where he sometimes killed his opponents, expanded the spoils system (where a newly elected president gives government jobs to his supporters), supported slavery, and aggressively enforced the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the forced relocation of Native Americans by the tens of thousands. The tragic Trail of Tears was just a part of the whole cruel enterprise. The irony is that Jackson created the Democratic Party, but he is a poster boy for today’s political conservatives, the very core of the modern anti-intellectualism trend.

Hofstadter further proposes that business plays a role, where “wisdom of intuition” is more valued as natural and endowed by God than is rationality and learning, which is acquired and artificial. The first, they believe, is nimble, the second slow and lumbering.

And then there’s evangelicalism, which comes from the heart, rational mind be damned. When the Puritans came to America their ministers were held up as leaders, both in intellect and education, but that notion weakened over time as ministers gradually morphed into populist crusaders and bible thumping preachers. Hofstadter wrote, “In modern [American] culture the evangelical movement has been the most powerful carrier of this kind of religious anti-intellectualism."

Fear of Intelligence

The truth is that anti-intellectuals are threatened by intelligence, and it’s no wonder. Intellectuals think. They examine. They question. They consider things from several different perspectives. And that’s dangerous because you never know where thinking will lead or what belief systems will be shattered. It’s the same with political conservatism.

What is really alarming is that political conservatism—and by extension, anti-intellectualism—has been suggested to be a mild form of insanity (or not so mild a form depending on your point of view).

Political Conservatism is Insanity

A study published in Psychological Bulletin, Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski & Sulloway), states, “several psychological variables predicted political conservatism.” Those variables included dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, closed-mindedness, low tolerance of uncertainty, low integrative complexity, fear of threat or loss, and low self-esteem, according to Dr. William Todd Schultz, professor of psychology at Pacific University.

Schultz calls the list “more than a little unsavory,” and says those variables denote someone “full of fear, with a poor sense of self, and a lack of mental dexterity.” He goes on to point out that tolerance of ambiguity is a very strong indicator of psychological maturity, but the study indicates that political conservatives are just the opposite. Not only do they demonstrate an intolerance of ambiguity, but also an inability to deal with complexity. To them everything is black or white, right or wrong. Shades of grey make them fearful, and it’s that fear that causes them to hate. Just listen to what they preach. Progressive liberals speak more to promise, hope and lifting up society as a whole.

So political conservatives, anti-intellectuals, and slingers of the “Grammar Nazi” epithet, your ignorance is not as good as my knowledge, or as once again Asimov put it: “Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”


Jost, J.T. et al., 2003. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), p.339-375. Available at:

Hofstadter, R., 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage. Available at:

Jacoby, S., Sunday, February 17, 2008, The Dumbing Of America, Available at:


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