What ever happened to intellectuals in American politics?

In his GQ thread, “What happened to Jeffersonian democracy after Jefferson?” Jomo Mojo lamented that we don’t get intellectuals like that for president any more.

And, you know, he’s right. If we define “intellectual” in the broadest possible terms, as a person who is passionately interested in knowledge and ideas for their own sake, then we haven’t had a real intellectual in the White House since Woodrow Wilson. We haven’t even had one as a serious candidate – Adlai Stevenson was not nearly as intellectual as his public image made him out to be. We’ve had intelligent men in the Oval Office, to be sure, but no intellectuals. We still have political intellectuals, but they prefer to exert their influence through think-tanks, talk shows and magazine articles. They never run for public office. There are political intellectuals, and there are career politicians, and no doubt there is some interaction and communication between these two groups, but there is practically no Boolean intersection between them.

Why is that? Why don’t intellectuals go into politics any more?

They wouldn’t get elected. You couldn’t fit them into a ten second sound byte. People don’t care about credentials. How many republicans had more and longer expereince in government then George W. Bush? Demographics and family connections however made him the annointed front runner. I’m not naive enough to believe its any different with the democrats.

Moynihan was an intellectual, and he was quite successful.

And it’s not like the US had this great run of intellectual presidents and then it suddenly stopped happening after Wilson. I don’t think there really have been a whole lot of intellectuals in politics in the history of the US, aside from the very beginning.

Part of the problem is that American political pundits now use “intelligent” or “intellectual” as smears – just think of all the times you’ve heard some talk-radio blowhard dismiss his opponent as an “intellectual elite” or a “pointy-headed intellectual”. Heck, think of all the times people have been insulted for being smart: “Einstein,” “Poindexter,” “geek,” and “nerd” all come to mind.

As TV’s popularity has grown (and as our attention spans shrink), candidates get elected for things other than their brains.

It doesn’t help that even before this era, you can’t name “great” presidents who were intellectuals. I don’t think Jefferson is considered a great president, and Wilson did too many things that were far from admirable in his time in office. The “great” presidents are the movers and shakers, not the thinkers.


Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey were intellectuals.

How exactly would one demonstrate their being an intellectual? By your definition, ** If we define “intellectual” in the broadest possible terms, as a person who is passionately interested in knowledge and ideas for their own sake** George H.W. Bush was an entomological intellectual. Did that make him a great president? No.

Having a PhD is hardly the only qualification for being an intellectual.


Thanks, december. It’s been decades since the last time I spurted a drink through my nose.

Warn us next time, okay?

…but they got better?

Although… december’s put his finger on an aspect of modern politics that’s probably germaine to the topic; if any strong political movement of the past several decades could be said to be dominated by intellectuals, IMO it would be the neoconservative movement. --Mind you, that’s not necessarily a strong point for a political movement.

Armey also taught at the college level. If having a PhD in economics and teaching it in college doesn’t make one an intellectual, what more would one need?

BTW John Ashcroft taught in law school and co-authored two legal textbooks. Is Ashcroft an intellectual? :eek:

I distinctly recall that Moynihan cited the devolution of the Senate into partisan politics and gridlock as one of the reasons why he decided to leave. That could be a big reason right there.

Jimmy Carter interests me quite a lot. He was an intellectual in the making, with graduate work in nuclear physics and time in the Navy working to develop the nuclear submarine program under Hyman Rickover.* Then his father died in 1953 and he just packed it all up and went back to the farm. I suspect that politics became Carter’s intellectual outlet, and I can’t help but wonder if that might somehow have contributed to his undoing as President.

The original George Bush is clearly a smart guy, but he ditched purely intellectual pursuits early in his carreer just as Carter did. It looks as if it was partly due to familial obligations and partly due to the opportunities presented to him by his father’s political success. He also seemed to have a vaguely intellectual air about him in that he publicly seemed near-expert on those subjects which interested him, and embarassingly uninformed on those subjects which didn’t interest him. I’ve met more than one of that kind of person in the ivory tower.

I’m not saying that either of those two individuals qualify as the classic intellectual politician; rather, I’m sort of curious to know why they weren’t that sort of politician.

  • And it still pisses me off to no end that Carter was one of the very first to explore the practical applications of nuclear power and never learned how to pronounce the goddamned word.

Your implication is that it’s not possible to be conservative and an intellectual. Both these guys have qualifications to be called intellectuals. Give us your definition and show us why they are not. I’d say anyone with a PhD is pretty much automatically on the list unless proven otherwise. Now, if you want Rennaisance Men, that’s another thing altogether.

I’d consider the following to be at least fairly high on the intellectual list:

Clinton (hey if a Rhodes scholar doesn’t qualify, who does?)
(Army and Gingrich)

Those are the ones that come to mind with about 60 seconds of thought.

Because these type of people are probably better suited to research than politics. The “Intellectual” has often come to be percieved as an arrogant elitist living in an ivory tower. “Intellectuals” are not people of action. They analyze and criticize from afar.

Politics is about consolidating and wielding influence. It is about influencing others and gathering consensus. Quite often the “intellectual” attitude is “this is the scientifically proven best way to do this so if you don’t agree you are a mindless baboon”. Not exactly a great way to relate to your constituents.

By the way, wasn’t Clinton a Rhodes Scholar?

Television and our version of democracy makes them unacceptable. I saw a man on the street interview where a man said that Al Gore sounded like he was talking down to people. He voted for Bush.

According to the bell curve 88% of the population scores below 120.

So was Bill Clinton an intellectual or not? Al Gore? Both are purported to be very “smart.” Al Gore did that France sabbatical thing, right?

John, your act of inferring from my post does not constitute my having made any implications (other than I find the idea of Dick Armey, Intellectual pretty damn amusing).

Well how exactly are we characterizing intellectuals?

The House and Senate may not be the penultimate apex of American intellectual life, but having watched both House/Senate and university academic committee discussions in action, the intellectual horsepower of most competent Senators and Congressmen is at least on a par with the average university professor and in some cases well above.

Regarding Gingrich, although I would not agree with him across the board Newt Gingrich was in a certain sense the ultimate intellectual, in that he had not only a well articulated philosophical position about government, but he also managed to intellectually convince a lot of fairly rational people that he had the right program.

Did any of you ever see various CSPAN group debates and discussions with Gingrich going one on one with think tank “intellectuals”? He took most of their arguments apart like tinker toys.

IMO in a historical macro sense the failed (mainly but not entirely liberal) “big idea” social policies of the 60’s and 70’s that were repudiated in the 80’s and 90’s gave a lot of people a very bad taste in their mouth for how things turn out when well meaning intellectuals were able to get a lot of their favored ideas implemented as social policy. Some of these ideas succeeded and are present to this day, but a good many others were high minded, but seemingly clueless about human nature and after crashing and burning made the label “intellectual” synonymous with “clueless about the real world” and politicians run from it to this day.

Why do you find it amusing other than that you disagree with his politics?

Dick Army: PhD in Economics. 15+ yrs in academics, including becoming the chairman of the economics dept at U of North Texas.