Conservatism’s Growing Affection for Ignorance

Conservative Anti-intellectualism

Conservatives Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter

Conservative Anti-intellectualism

Conservatism’s association with ignorance is growing at an unprecedented pace. An affiliation between the two has been observed by philosophers for a couple of centuries, but nothing matches what we’re seeing today. With spokespeople like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Drudge, Michelle Malkin, Gretchen Carlson, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Glenn Beck, how could it be otherwise?

Apart from these, however, the debt owed George W. Bush in this regard is enormous. During his presidency, Bush malapropisms reached a level so embarrassing that the media seemed to curtail any mention of them, simply because the only real conclusion one could reasonably reach is that this man was egregiously incompetent; calling attention to the fact portended doom. Of course, his ineptitude is now self-evident. It may take generations to repair the economic mess he left behind, not to mention what his disastrous foreign policy did to America’s reputation. But the anti-intellectual effort to resist political acumen continues.

Glenn Beck says that Rick Santorum could be “the next George Washington.” Who would have imagined George Washington as being obsessed with gay marriage or creationism? And people wonder why conservatism is linked with ignorance.

I watched an interview recently featuring Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke. Robin argues that the essence of conservatism is that it is an ideological intellectual position. Intellectual indeed. There are conservative intellectuals to be sure, but the conservative base is viscerally anti-intellectual, which is why presidential candidate Herman Cain thought he could make points with his supporters by saying he didn’t want a president who is a reader.

Robin’s book would be better named The Reactionary Emotion. Conservatism is experienced viscerally by its base as individual identity, which is precisely why there are so many right-wing proponents who are anti-intellectual. For both political parties, identity is important, but it is demonstrably much more of an issue for conservatives by nature of their political posture. When interviews with Sarah Palin revealed that she lacked the knowledge necessary to qualify as a candidate for high political office, the conventional wisdom was that that she would go home, hit the books, and return to the public spotlight stronger than ever. Numerous influential conservatives advised her to do this very thing, and they expected that she would. Instead, she continued to demonstrate an egregious lack of knowledge about important political matters.

Many people, especially religious conservatives, experience truth metaphorically, as a product of association, making familiarity a rallying point and a condition of good, while simultaneously rendering one’s group impervious to criticism because of what psychologists call the “halo effect.” Sarah Palin could be the archetype or icon representing this kind of association, and I know this first-hand because I live in Wasilla, Alaska, as she does. Identity is drenched in emotion, and it can easily trump reason—especially if one’s group appears to be threatened or under assault—unless there is a concentrated effort to be objective beyond the bounds of one’s penchant for a passionate defense.

Palin and those who identify with her think they already know everything they need to know. It’s who they are that’s important. This is why facts contrary to their beliefs and arguments don’t matter to them. They are who they are, and this is what counts. Moreover, people who cannot confirm this from their own observations are simply too deeply immersed in their own identification with Palin to be objective. Think about this: If a group of people believe with all their heart that they are the only ones going to heaven, why would they care what anyone else, says, thinks, believes or does, unless it is something that gets in their way or does not earn their approval? Moreover, this kind of logic of association is pliable, adaptable, and easily transferable, in that it can also mean “we are the only true Americans.” From there, it becomes self-evident to the true believers that their lot in life is simply to fight for good against evil.

Intellectual conservatism is worthy of debate. There is great value to be found in conservative philosophy. It’s the shallow stance taken by those whose ideology is based solely on their identity that resorts to an ethos of we are good and others are evil, especially those who do not share the same religion or worldview. That’s the problem and the tragedy of contemporary conservatism. That’s why their position on so many issues is expressed as “it’s our way or the highway” or “we are bound for heaven and the rest of you are bound for hell.”

Ignorance leaves few options for resolution, and unfortunately most political discourse in America occurs among individuals whose knowledge is superficial. Such an approach is unsatisfactory because it is simply not possible to discuss any important subject without immersing oneself genealogically in its details and the latest research. Without enough knowledge to discuss an issue intelligently, all a person can do is to respond emotionally and more often than not with rejoinders that attack the other person’s character instead of addressing the issue at hand. Conservative talk radio is immensely popular, not because of the reasonable arguments they put forth. Conservative talk radio is all about identity; it’s us and them on steroids, raw emotion to the max, and it depends on contempt and discord for its very existence.

Countering the accusation that conservatives may be dumb or stupid, Corey Robin says that “nothing could be further from the truth.” Well, yes, Corey, it can. It can be light-years further. Glenn Beck considers Rick Santorum George Washington material, Ron Paul thinks he’s electable, Michele Bachmann thinks the founding fathers fought tirelessly to end slavery and that she is gaffe free, Rush Limbaugh thinks he is not a bigot, Ann Coulter thinks she’s a human being, Newt Gingrich thinks that he is not a lobbyist or a hypocrite, Rick Perry thinks he is prepared to be president, Rick Santorum thinks he is not a homophobe, Glenn Beck thinks he thinks. Jon Huntsman is too thoughtful to be considered one of them, so he isn’t.

Forest Gump was right when he said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Smart people who are fundamentally ignorant and self-deceptive to boot do stupid things, and they infuse so much emotion into politics that intelligent dialog is not likely to follow. So, the report from Fairleigh Dickenson University that viewers of Fox News know less than people who don’t watch any news at all should come as no surprise.

Charles Hayes

We’re wise to keep in mind the first fourteen years of this century, when the middle class came under siege and inequality escalated exponentially. If we elect a Republican as president in 2016, we deserve the calamity that will follow. After all, “stupid is as stupid does.”

Charles D. Hayes


  1. jace says

    This was an excellent article. There’s one reason i ended up not sharing it with someone: you got personal and emotional in your character attacks. Do those people deserve to have some character assassination? Yes. Does it make for a reasonable argument? No. Does it lessen the objectivity and sense of balance in an otherwise well written article? Yes. There is a reason why i don’t try to write opinion articles much any more: i get too reactionary and i start slinging insults. It makes for poor credibility, especially when advocating for intellect, reason, and rationality. Everyone is human, but this article fails to attain, or at least maintain, the level of professionalism i seek in professional commentary. The attacks aside, as i said, otherwise excellent article.

  2. says

    Stupid is as stupid does?? Then indeed we are all stupid for tolerating a <1% Roman-republic style oligarchy that – even were it to consist of our top <1% of truly endowed and selflessly incorruptible geniuses – simply wouldn't have the time and numbers of participants needed to make reasoned well-deliberated decisions on the multitude of today's problems and opportunities.

    But now our toleration of political oligarchy has become not merely stupid but dangerous.

    It's not only the happily closed minds of the self-professed 'conservatives' (actually, as Reich points out, 'regressive' is the better description) that we have to fear.

    Indeed, commenter Jay L. charitably understates. Obama's 'inexperience' has in fact become pathological, as committed as any conservative to preconceptions irrespective of realities . His pro-militant-Islamist foreign policy already qualifies him as the most immoral or anyhow morally imbecilic and compulsive shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot western leader since Neville Chamberlain. (See e.g. Mideast policy analyst Barry Rubin's latest analysis.) And all Hillary does is toady to him, as she did for Bush.

  3. Jay Levenberg, Esq. says

    We were stupid enough to elect Obama when we had a real candidate in Hillary Clinton. Now we are stuck with him-an inexperienced politician who doesn’t like the office or dealing with Congress. Gingrich and Obama share one thing in common. They are both pompous egotists that do not understand the American people. They both think they are “above the fray.” What a choice Americans will have in November. I bet a lot of them sit it out.

    • I Disagree says

      The statement that Ann Coulter is not a human being is based on reason and not emotion? She may be a bad human being, but she is still a human being. Glenn Beck obviously thinks. He may not do it well, but to suggest he doesn’t is the definition of the emotional attack on character you were just describing. How can you say those two attacks were not emotional? What was an otherwise interesting article was ruined by engaging in the very behavior about which you were complaining.

      • says

        You are right about Coulter and Beck being human beings. Both are outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, both have in my view brought irreparable harm to public discourse by playing on the fears of ignorant people. I confess in getting some emotional satisfaction in humor at their expense. But I stand by the notion that they deserve it.

    • john kempf says

      Pure nonsense—typical left-wing psychobabble with the usual notable generalized accusations and character assignations void of any specifics on Beck, Palin or any other target of this goofy rhetoric.
      But I can give you specifics of the lunacy of Pelosi. How the mentally challenged Joe Biden, who is always good for an embarrassing look into the realm of the incompetent.
      Not to mention Obama’s tax cheating Treasury Secretary that does not know how to use Turbo Tax, his excuse for cheating on his income tax. Then there is disgraced Charlie Rangel, another democratic tax cheat and fraud. And what about Bill Clinton, the President that had to redefine the meaning of the word “is,” in an attempt to escape the humiliation that he deserves. Then there is Obama himself, who makes more gaffes then can be counted, but which get passed over by the media, without which he could not have won the presidency, but would not have the slightest chance of maintaining it.
      I could go on nearly endlessly with specific democrats by name and their associated hypocrisy, deception, twofaced lifestyles and all the rest—just going thru the list of Kennedy’s alone would take a day. And you want to accept this empty critique of the political right as meaningful – dream on.

  4. curious georga says

    “Without enough knowledge to discuss an issue intelligently, all a person can do is to respond emotionally and more often than not with rejoinders that attack the other person’s character instead of addressing the issue at hand.”
    “Ann Coulter thinks she’s a human being.”
    “Glenn Beck thinks he thinks.”

    Are these not emotional attacks on character?

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