Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson thinks so. He argues that conservative intellectuals are now in the business of attacking “educated elites.” He calls this behavior “a grave danger to our democratic discourse.”
Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think. They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron. Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in. Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns. Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians.
But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our general public culture, and dare we say—as would the Kimball of old—“civilization.” Our public dialogue is threatened by the likes of Twitter thinking—more short spasms than developed reasoning. Conservative intellectuals have always struggled with their own tendency to instinctively distrust their own kind— i.e. other intellectuals, what the historian Christopher Lasch once labeled the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.” Yet right now, they seem they seem to have moved beyond self-hate and toward willful self-sabotage. Their ideas have lost all intellectual rigor and warrant no respect. In killing off their own thinking, they kill off the possibility of democratic discourse, where thinkers with different principles can debate but engage in a productive conversation about our contemporary political situation. By turning the exchange of ideas into warfare and angry brawls, conservative “thought leaders” are killing off the very principle of democratic debate.
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