The day I found common ground with Michael Gerson
It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with Michael Gerson, but I thought there was some truth in his column today. He starts off quoting Obama:
“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”
Then to Gerson:
“Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents ‘facts and science and argument.’ His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader — the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning.”
That’s a fair argument. Once any side in politics starts viewing their arguments – and only their arguments – as the sole conclusion that can be reached by a thinking person, there’s no real room for political debate. And yeah, Obama does have a tendency to do that sometimes.
And Gerson’s aside that:
“the old social aristocracy could have been taught a thing or two about snobbery by the intellectual upper class — conditioned to believe their superiority is founded not on wealth or lineage but on “facts and science and argument.”
… brought to mind a passage from one of my all-time favorite posts:
“Another serious disadvantage to rule by the ‘best and brightest’ is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has ‘little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.’ It ‘thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”
I love it when I’m given the opportunity to steal quotes from that piece.
The problem I have with this is that he seems to view intellectual superiority as exclusive to the Democratic Party: all of his examples of intellectual snobbery – Dukakis, Gore, Kerry – are Democrats. Apparently he’s never experienced the intellectual superiority of some coffee-shop libertarians who absolutely believe the only thing standing in the way of their side governing is the ignorance of the American people. Or the gratingly preachy tone Ron Paul used throughout the ’08 campaign, apparently trying to school a moronic public about the Constitution. Or maybe he’s already forgotten about William F. Buckley. Point is, there’s enough intellectual superiority to go around. It bothers some people and it doesn’t bother others.
There’s also a difference between being accused of intellectual snobbery (usually based on personality) and actually exhibiting it. Kerry, for instance, was not my favorite Democratic candidate and he was certainly no “man of the people,” but he always struck me as more Blue Blood than Brainiac. Tacking him onto the list of intellectual snobbery fits into the old frame well, but the overall appreciation I have for Gerson’s point is damaged a bit by the clumsy way he does fall back on that old frame.
But nitpicks and personal politics aside, Gerson has good reason to take issue with Obama’s explanation. Politics isn’t science, it’s just prioritization. And snobbery is snobbery, whether based on money or brains.