Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Victory for Thought?

As the Presidential election began to heat up in late-September, I wrote about "Elitism in Politics" and the seeming disinterest in the electorate in having elected officials who were, in fact, "elite" in terms of education and intellectual prowess. In that article, I noted:

For some reason that I don't understand, Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with education and intellectualism. We want our kids to get the best education possible (except for home-schoolers who I just don't get...) and we admire the best institutions of higher education. Many of us dream that our children will be able to go to one of the top colleges and get a superior education. Yet too many Americans seem to hold academics and intellectuals in disdain. I'm sorry, but what is wrong with someone who thinks deeply about certain subjects?

And I concluded:

It is time to stop denigrating academic success; it is time to start applauding those who work hard, attend good schools, get good educations, and then put those educations to work. And, it is time that we recognized the value of someone who is capable of "deep thought" on complex issues and who exercises that capacity. Someone who revels in their own ignorance or who brags about the ability to make a decision without pondering all of the possible outcomes is not someone who should lead our nation.

So, now the election is over and I can't help but feel, at least a bit, as if perhaps one of the reasons that Sen. Obama won was precisely because of his intellectual prowess. Through three debates, numerous interviews, and countless rallies, he talked about ideas and, in doing so, he appeared, well, presidential. He didn't talk down to voters and he often discussed real issues (especially the economy) in more than mere sound bites (for example, go back and listen to the entire discussion with "Joe the Plumber"). Now, as he begins the transition process, President-elect Obama is working to select the best and brightest to surround him and party affiliation or past allegiance doesn't seem to be as much of a factor as ability. As President-elect Obama has stated, he relies upon advisors to help him make the best decisions for the country. His willingness to seek advice and, more importantly, to listen that advice, is one of the things to that attracted me to his candidacy in the first place.

And, apparently, I'm not the only one taking note of what the results of this election may mean for the importance of intellectual elitism in American politics. Michael Hirsh, writing in Newsweek:

We can finally go back to respecting logic and reason and studiousness under a president who doesn't seem to care much about what is "left," "right" or ideologically pure. Or what he thinks God is saying to him. A guy who keeps religion in its proper place — in the pew. It's no accident that Obama is the first Northern Democrat to be elected president since John F. Kennedy. The Sun Belt politics represented by George W. Bush — the politics of ideological rigidity, religious zealotry and anti-intellectualism — "has for the moment played itself out," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

From the very start of his campaign, Obama has given notice that whatever you might think about his policies, they will be well thought out and soberly considered, and that as president he will not be a slave to passion or impulse. While his GOP opponent, a 72-year-old who has battled skin cancer, was cynically deciding for political reasons that a woman who apparently did not know that Africa is a continent rather than a country should be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama was setting up work groups to study every major international issue and region of the world. Through three debates with John McCain, he refused to be baited into personal attacks. And the more we have learned about his transition process, the clearer it becomes that he intends to be that kind of president as well. Against the very political concerns of some of his loyalists that he, the candidate of "change," is bringing too many ex-Clintonites on board, he is dispassionately welcoming-in the best brains (like Larry Summers, Laura Tyson and Gene Sperling) and most experienced hands (considering an extension of Bob Gates's tenure at the Pentagon, for instance). He is actively considering other Republicans for high posts.

How very presidential. And how very unusual.

Similarly, writing for The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristoff notes:

Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.

Maybe, just maybe, the result will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life. Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we’ve seen recently that the converse — a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance — doesn’t get very far either.

We can’t solve our educational challenges when, according to polls, Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution, and when one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the Earth.

Almost half of young Americans said in a 2006 poll that it was not necessary to know the locations of countries where important news was made. That must be a relief to Sarah Palin, who, according to Fox News, didn’t realize that Africa was a continent rather than a country.

Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.

As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.

Some may say that Obama's intellectual strengths had nothing to do with his election, arguing instead that it all came down to race and the economy. But I don't think that is right for two reasons. First, don't forget that Obama had to defeat several, highly qualified opponents (Sen. Clinton, anyone?) in the primaries before earning the right to face Sen. McCain. Something drew people to Obama in the primaries and it wasn't just race (his first primary victory was in Iowa...) and the economy hadn't imploded (and, even if it had, probably would not have necessarily been more "helpful" to Obama than to Sen. Clinton or John Edwards or any of the other candidates).

Speaking for myself, I remember one of the things that drew me to Obama (in the days when I was still undecided) was his decision to oppose a temporary ban on the federal tax on gasoline (supported by Sen. Clinton). That was one of those issues that sounded good on its face and made for a great sound bite, but when you really stopped to think about the real impact of the plan, you realized that it really was nothing more than a good sound bite. But it wasn't the issue that was particularly meaningful to me or that led me to support Obama; rather it was the way that Obama seemed to take time to think about the issue and make the right decision, rather than the decision that would play well in a sound bite and earn him a few extra votes.

Second, the fact that so many liberals and intellectuals (including some conservative thinkers like Christopher Buckley) were willing to work to make Obama's election a reality suggests that there was something to the candidate that inspired effort. I wanted John Kerry to win and I wanted Al Gore to win, but during neither of those elections did I do anything other than listen and vote. In this election, I (and apparently several million of my closest friends) did more than listen; we contributed, we wrote, we called, we talked, and then we voted. Something that Obama did or said made people like me take a more personal interest in this election campaign.

I don't know that Obama's intellectualism was the sole reason that people became interested and involved, but I do think that it was a reason.

So, as we watch the formative stages of the Obama administration and we see President-elect Obama being unapologetic about his desire to think about issues and to surround himself with the best and the brightest, I have great hopes that we will, indeed, leave behind the days when "intellectual" was a derogatory term and enter a new period in which those willing and able to engage in "deep thought" and careful, intellectual analysis of complex issues and problems will be valued. The President should be able to take a few deep breaths and think before making decisions that will effect the entire world. I'd rather that he get it right even if that means that we need to rely on his intellectual capacity and the intellectual abilities of those surrounding him.

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