The Sciences

The Conservative "Class War" against Expertise

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJun 18, 2011 3:11 PM

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By Jon Winsor One of the most surprising things about the Santorum interview on Limbaugh last week was how completely unsurprising it was. Here’s Santorum’s take on climate science:

There's a variety of factors that contribute to the earth warming and cooling, and to me this is an opportunity for the left to create -- it's a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm. It's been on a warming trend so they said, "Oh, let's take advantage of that and say that we need the government to come in and regulate your life some more because it's getting warmer," just like they did in the seventies when it was getting cool, they needed the government to come in and regulate your life because it's getting cooler. It's just an excuse for more government control of your life…

Got that? Scientists (who we can assume are included under what Santorum means by “the left”) are secretly “concocting” the science, because they want government to “control your life.” Obviously, this is not much of a scientific argument. But it's a very recognizable political argument, and the kind we hear repeatedly. And some of us may remember the early 80’s when it was a new argument, at least in the mass-circulated form that we we see it in today. I would argue that the person most responsible for putting that argument into circulation was Irving Kristol. In 1975, he wrote:

[The] "new class" consists of scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators, criminologists, sociologists, public health doctors, etc.-a substantial number of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private. The public sector, indeed, is where they prefer to be. They are, as one says, "idealistic"-i.e., far less interested in individual financial rewards than in the corporate power of their class. Though they continue to speak the language of "Progressive-reform," in actuality they are acting upon a hidden agenda: to propel the nation from that modified version of capitalism we call "the welfare state" toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anti-capitalist aspirations of the Left.

This is primarily an emotional argument--as has become more and more clear over the years. Not only does it have nothing to do with the merits of specific claims and arguments (especially the merits of climate science), but Irving Kristol and his left-leaning colleague Daniel Bell turned out to be quite wrong in their predictions about the counter culture and what would happen to the welfare state as baby boomers entered the professions. But even though the predictions about the "new class" turned out wrong, as a set of ideas they've had a wildly successful career, and even continue to have success. The reasons why are many:

  • Politically, this kind of argument can draw on the cultural resentments of everyone who isn’t an expert, and also draw on the strong force of US anti-intellectualism. As Amanda Marcotte put it a couple years ago, a politician (like Santorum) can use this style of argument to pick up “the spite vote.”

  • They could trade on fears of the counterculture, which were strong back in 1975 when Kristol was making his case, but has lessened now that the counterculture sells everything from running sneakers to Cadillacs (although images of the counterculture still have power to motivate the GOP base when the culture wars are invoked).

  • They built on the demonstrated success of Nixon’s strategy of stoking resentments: against intellectuals, the press, and all the snooty types who would oppose underdogs like Nixon (Americans love an underdog, which the conservative counterestablishment knows all too well).

  • It rang alarm bells for the donor class for conservative institutions, urging them to respond to the new proliferation of experts and help create their own network of counter-expertise (a favorite subject of Chris’s lately).

  • It piggybacked on previous conservative intellectuals’ work. See William F. Buckley on “the liberal establishment” and James Burnham on the “managerial elite.”

  • It allowed Kristol’s cohort of conservative intellectuals to mine all the brilliant content of the anti-bohemian and anti-communist feuds among the New York intellectuals, so they could fight the intellectual skirmishes they needed to fight to get establishment respect. The work of Daniel Bell alone is rich enough to spend decades unpacking (even though, again, he got many of his predictions wrong).

  • Most of all, Kristol’s formula of cultural class struggle against “elitist big government” made coordinated messaging easy. Even Sarah Palin can rail in favor of the “real Americans” and against the “elites." And we can hear Kristol's formula broadcast in stereo from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, and the candidates themselves. (Everyone all together now: “John Kerry is a French elitist.” “Barack Obama is a socialist!” Or, “This climategate thing is BIG!!” If enough people say so at the same time, there must be something to it, right?)

Of course, these days there are almost no socialists left (except maybe Bernie Sanders), and the counterculture is starting to exist only late at night on Nickolodean. So the only people left to fight are the “intellectuals” (Irving Kristol’s “scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators… etc.”) This has become very worrying to smart conservatives such as David Frum and David Brooks because if conservatives oppose everyone that Kristol classified as “new class” intellectuals, they start to oppose expert competence itself. But The Weekly Standard is having none of this:

Kristol would not brook being lectured to by thinkers feigning a concern for conservatism and shedding crocodile tears over its fall from a dignified version limited to quoting maxims from Edmund Burke. This group of salon intellectuals, still active today, would, in the name of “saving” conservatism, exclude from it people of faith because they are too religious, entrepreneurs because they wish to make too much money, and middle Americans because they are too patriotic. While Kristol acknowledged the dangers of populism, he also saw that it can be a “corrective to the defects . . . often arising from the intellectual influence . . . of our democratic elites.” Calling attention to a new fact of modern political life, he noted that the “people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent in the name of some utopian goal.”

Having policy informed by science--"utopian?" Is it something only "salon intellectuals" need to worry about? The Weekly Standard's reviewer skates very fast over this territory because he's on thin ice.

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