Is Populist Anti-Intellectualism Wise?

On Friday a producer of Larry Kudlow’s CNBC show asked whether I would be willing to come on that evening to talk about this editorial in the Harvard Crimson. As it happened, I was already committed for the evening and had to decline, but that was just as well, as I wasn’t sure what to say about the article in any event.

The Crimson editorial chides Harvard graduates who go on to use the university as a whipping boy, especially in a political context:

If you think Harvard is a revolutionary communist hotbed, don’t apply. If you think Harvard is full of “pinheaded” professors, don’t enroll. And if you think Harvard pollutes the minds of its students, don’t walk out of here with a degree—and certainly don’t get two.

You see, lately, there seems to be a pernicious trend of public figures—especially those on the right—falling in love with Harvard just long enough to benefit from its educational resources and, yes, its social prestige, before turning against our school. Just recently, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas affirmed his belief that Harvard Law School was, during his years as a student there, home to a cohort of “Marxists who believed in…overthrowing the United States government.” In November, Fox News pundit and Harvard Kennedy School graduate Bill O’Reilly glibly referred to Harvard professors as “pinheaded” while implying that the Harvard community is morally suspect for its acceptance of Harvard College Munch, a group for students who share an interest in kinky sex. And last April, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who holds a J.D. and MBA from our fine institution, lambasted President Obama for having spent “too much time at Harvard.”

Such episodes of treachery are apparently attempts to curry favor with the more anti-intellectual members of our body politic. Yet it is finally time that we say enough is enough. We at The Crimson urge anyone who plans on one day scoring political points by maligning Harvard to neither apply, enroll, nor graduate from this fine institution.

Frankly, much as I disagree with the Crimson’s political slant, I think the editors have a point. Do Ivy League institutions like Harvard tilt to the left? Of course. But left-wing outrages are just as likely to come from state universities (think Ward Churchill) and the local community college. There are great conservatives at the Ivy League schools, not to mention the many fine teachers who are more or less apolitical. And I do think it is a bit unseemly for Mitt Romney, who has degrees from both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, to tweak Barack Obama for spending too much time there.

Dismissive comments about educational institutions like Harvard are common on the right, and the Crimson’s editors are not alone in seeing them as a manifestation of anti-intellectualism. They are intended, I take it, to strike a populist tone. But do they do so effectively? I don’t think so. Putting aside the question whether Harvard is any more left-wing than, say, the University of Wisconsin, I suspect that attacks of the sort cited by the Crimson are counter-productive. Most people, rightly or wrongly, think of institutions like Harvard as places of great intellectual achievement–which is, after all, the point of singling them out for disdain. As far as I can see, for example, virtually everyone considers Barack Obama’s having been President of the Harvard Law Review to be a fine thing, and some even considered it, however misguidedly, to be a qualification for high political office. Equating intellectualism with leftism plays into the (entirely false) narrative that paints conservatives as ignoramuses, and Republicans as the “stupid party.”

The question of how conservatives and Republicans can better appeal to low-information voters is a critical one, and I don’t have any easy answers. But there is little evidence that indulging in what comes across as anti-intellectual populism is an effective means to that end.