Farewell to anti-intellectualism?

Until recently, I equated politics with duty: something that I must participate in, but that was never elevated above a choice between deeply unsatisfactory options.

I find most politics ideologically empty, and it is almost a truism to say that we know very little about how President Obama will govern. However, I do believe that yesterday’s election will make a profound difference to the world, and for the first time I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of political change. Of course the race issue is important, but my personal hope for Obama’s presidency is the end (or, at worst, the long suspension) of a culture of anti-intellectualism that has plagued Western politics for years.

Anti-intellectualism is not a uniquely right-wing stance, but it has been used with alarming regularity by the current US administration. Bush himself is the archetypal example but, consigning him to the history he deserves to inhabit, we’ve seen examples in the recent campaign too. Sarah Palin’s attempt to champion the cause of the “real America”, by conflating intellect and elitism, failed profoundly.

The right’s attack has not been constrained purely to intelligence: it has also involved the devaluation of education, reason and evidence. All have been systematically discarded by the incumbent government, state education boards, Supreme Court Justices and hawkish military generals.

This framing of intellectuals as The Other is counter-productive, dangerous, and hopefully moribund.

It is clear that Obama is an acutely intelligent man and a gifted orator. As such, he received his mandate from two ends of the spectrum: those with the lowest and highest privileges. His race and his stance on welfare made him attractive to disenfranchised minorities, while his sharp, rational demeanour made him almost entirely dominant amongst liberal urbanites. This top-and-bottom split was complemented by a generational shift: a fierce reaction against the hegemony of old, rich, white men. The campaign itself owes much of its success to the internet and, yes, even graphic design. Fairey’s Hope poster will stay with us as one of the most important political design works of our generation.

Republicans may wish to blame their loss on the economy. 63% of Americans say it was the primary issue. But I think the Republican attitude that the economy needs to be restored to its former glories is fundamentally wrong. It doesn’t. The way forward is a new, sustainable, evenhanded economy with environmental conscience, and checks and balances protecting the public purse from the risks of the free market. Where the poor get richer, not just the rich.

While I’m concerned I’ve compromised my cynicism and have gone a bit gooey over a single politician, yesterday feels to me as significant as 9/11, and as constructive as the aforementioned was destructive. I believe that, given the pace of innovation and change in our society, we are already caught up in a second Renaissance. Politics, historically, always lags behind social trends. Yesterday it caught up, and the 21st century can really begin