In America's progressive heartland, a Senate race is defined by anti-intellectualismby James McAuley / November 4, 2012 / Leave a comment
Under no circumstances can the commonwealth of Massachusetts be considered a microcosm of the United States. It’s disproportionately affluent, around 40 per cent of the local population has completed a university degree and, unsurprisingly, Democrats control the state legislature. The Bay State, after all, isn’t just the province of Harvard, the Kennedys and the so-called “Boston Brahmins” one encounters in the novels of Henry James. It’s also the historic heart of American progressivism (or at least what’s left of it). The state was the centre of abolitionist fervor during the Civil War and was the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2004. As George W Bush put it in a debate against John Kerry during the 2004 campaign: “Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 per cent increase in funding for education was not enough.”
Even so, this year’s Senate race—between the Republican incumbent Scott Brown and his challenger, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren—has revealed a growing anti-intellectualism and, with it, a widening split among the electorate.
In 2010, Scott Brown won a special election called to fill the Senate seat that the late Ted Kennedy (the “liberal lion”) had held for decades. Brown was quick, however, to point out that it wasn’t Kennedy’s seat but “the people’s seat.” This was only the beginning of the populism and the anti-elitism Brown has continued to espouse ever since. It came as no surprise, then, when he started painting his opponent, who teaches at one of the most exclusive institutions in the country, as an out-of-touch member of the liberal aristocracy.
Despite having voted against Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act last year, Scott—or, rather, Scotty—Brown has worked tirelessly to depict himself as one of the people he represents in the “people’s seat.” He is a former co-captain of the Tufts University basketball team and the proud owner of a truck with four-wheel drive. After Hurricane Sandy cancelled his final debate with Warren on Tuesday, the truck made yet another appearance when it became a symbol of his Boy Scout-style preparedness even in the face of natural disaster. “That’s why I have a truck,” he told a Boston radio station. “If [Warren] needs a ride, I’m happy to pick her up, and I’ll be there, providing the electricity is on.” In the three debates that have occurred, Brown has continually referred to Warren as “Professor Warren” and, in a moment of exasperation, even went so far as to say, “I’m not a student in your classroom.”
Such anti-intellectualism is hardly new in the United States. Tocqueville observed it during his travels in the early 19th century, President Andrew Jackson only perpetuated it, and amid the McCarthyism of the 1950s “intellectual” became a political pejorative. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his definitive 1963 study of American anti-intellectualism, “in the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”
What’s surprising, however, is that this sort of sentiment appears to have taken root in Massachusetts, even to a small extent. Although “Professor” Warren is still likely to win on Tuesday—the latest polls cast her ahead by a few points—she isn’t leading by the margin one would expect in a liberal state. Voters may have finally bought into Brown’s repeated claim that Warren listing her heritage as Cherokee on a Harvard form showcases poor character (she is one thirty-second Cherokee), but they also seem to be chafing at her image as an educated representative of America’s most elite university. (Never mind that Warren is the product of a working-class family from Oklahoma who worked her way through university and law school.)
While the Massachusetts race may be local, the heightened anti-intellectualism that’s emerged in this year’s campaign is anything but. In this sense, the Brown-Warren race is a bitter reminder of the problem social scientist Charles Murray identified earlier this year in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: the growing divide between working-class whites and the upper classes, mostly in terms of education rather than wealth.
Interestingly enough, Warren is also something of a populist. Her role as the most outspoken advocate for consumer protection in the United States even colours her favorite rejoinder to Brown’s frequent attacks on her claim to Cherokee heritage: “Scott Brown can continue attacking my family—but I’m gonna keep fighting for yours.” What happens when the best advocate for the working classes turns out to the epitome of the educated elite? Will the resentment bred by anti-intellectualism cost that candidate the election? Only Tuesday will tell.