Intellectuals and Politics
Intellectuals and Politics
By GARY GUTTING - Blog editorial, New York Times, 12/7/2011 - original
The rise of Newt Gingrich, Ph.D.— along with the apparent anti-intellectualism of many of the other Republican candidates — has once again raised the question of the role of intellectuals in American politics.

In writing about intellectuals, my temptation is to begin by echoing Marianne Moore on poetry: I, too, dislike them. But that would be a lie: all else equal, I really like intellectuals. Besides, I’m an intellectual myself, and their self-deprecation is one thing I really do dislike about many intellectuals.

What is an intellectual? In general, someone seriously devoted to what used to be called the “life of the mind”: thinking pursued not instrumentally, for the sake of practical goals, but simply for the sake of knowing and understanding. Nowadays, universities are the most congenial spots for intellectuals, although even there corporatism and careerism are increasing threats.

Intellectuals tell us things we need to know: how nature and society work, what happened in our past, how to analyze concepts, how to appreciate art and literature. They also keep us in conversation with the great minds of our past. This conversation may not, as some hope, tap into a source of enduring wisdom, but it at least provides a critical standpoint for assessing the limits of our current cultural assumptions.

In his Republic, Plato put forward the ideal of a state ruled by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems. In reality, no one has theoretical expertise in more than a few specialized subjects, and there is no strong correlation between having such knowledge and being able to use it to resolve complex social and political problems. Even more important, our theoretical knowledge is often highly limited, so that even the best available expert advice may be of little practical value. An experienced and informed non-expert may well have a better sense of these limits than experts strongly invested in their disciplines. This analysis supports the traditional American distrust of intellectuals: they are not in general highly suited for political office.

But it does not support the anti-intellectualism that tolerates or even applauds candidates who disdain or are incapable of serious engagement with intellectuals. Good politicians need not be intellectuals, but they should have intellectual lives. Concretely, they should have an ability and interest in reading the sorts of articles that appear in, for example, Scientific American, The New York Review of Books, and the science, culture and op-ed sections of major national newspapers — as well as the books discussed in such articles.

It’s often said that what our leaders need is common sense, not fancy theories. But common-sense ideas that work in individuals’ everyday lives are often useless for dealing with complex problems of society as a whole. For example, it’s common sense that government payments to the unemployed will lead to more jobs because those receiving the payments will spend the money, thereby increasing demand, which will lead businesses to hire more workers. But it’s also common sense that if people are paid for not working, they will have less incentive to work, which will increase unemployment. The trick is to find the amount of unemployment benefits that will strike the most effective balance between stimulating demand and discouraging employment. This is where our leaders need to talk to economists.

Knowing how to talk to economists and other experts is an essential skill of good political leaders. This in turn requires a basic understanding of how experts in various fields think and what they might have to offer for resolving a given problem. Leaders need to be intelligent “consumers” of expert opinions.

Our current electoral campaigns are not very good at determining candidates’ understanding of relevant intellectual issues. “Pop quizzes” from interviewers on historical or geographical facts don’t tell us much: those who know the answers may still have little grasp of fundamental policy questions, whereas a good grasp can be consistent with a lack of quick factual recall. Nor does reading sophisticated policy speeches that others have written or reciting pre-programmed talking points in interviews or news conferences tell us much about a candidate’s knowledge. Even quick-thinking responses in debates may indicate glibness rather than understanding.

The best evidence of how capable candidates are of fruitfully interacting with intellectuals would be to see them doing just this. Concretely, I make the follow suggestion for the coming presidential election: Gather small but diverse panels of eminent, politically uncommitted experts on, say, unemployment, the history of the Middle East, and climate science, and have each candidate lead an hour-long televised discussion with each panel. The candidates would not be mere moderators but would be expected to ask questions, probe disagreements, express their own ideas or concerns, and periodically summarize the state of discussion. Such engagements would provide some of the best information possible for judging candidates, while also enormously improving the quality of our political discourse.

A utopian fantasy? Very likely — but imagine a race between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich, two former college professors, and who knows?