Over at the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assesses the state of the Republican Party as it struggles to re-orient itself after sustaining repeated blows from the Trump wrecking ball. One of the most revelatory parts of the piece is a quote from Theda Skocpol, a renowned Harvard political scientist and widely trusted media source for all things related to the American right. Edsall asks her for her view of the so-called “reform conservatives”—policy thinkers at conservative publications and think tanks who oppose Trump but are considering ways to retool the Republican Party’s agenda so it can meaningfully address the anxieties of Trump’s voter base. Her response:
The “intellectuals’ ” idea that somehow the G.O.P. is going to start responding to the economic security worries of blue collar/lower middle class Republicans is largely a fantasy. And that is largely because the core of Trump’s support is raw nativism.
Note the scare quotes, which are presumably intended to suggest that the writers in question are either shills rather than independent thinkers, or else too dim to be worthy of the label.
To be sure, Skopcol probably just dashed off these words in an email, and she might use different language in another context. Nonetheless, her comment seems worth highlighting, for two reasons. First, it exemplifies a theme that we have followed closely on this blog: Academic social science and humanities departments (especially at elite institutions) are overwhelmingly—indeed, it’s fair to say, almost exclusively—left-of-center. Because of human beings’ tendency toward in-group favoritism, this means that it is common for influential scholars to regard conservative thinking as inherently suspect.
Second, it helps illuminate the process that led the GOP to earn its “stupid party” nickname. In this age of Trump, Hannity, and Coulter, it’s hard to dispute that anti-intellectualism is out of control in the GOP, and that corrupt conservative institutions bear most of the blame for this development. But Skocpol’s offhanded dismissal of some of the most fair-minded thinkers in the conservative movement is a reminder of liberalism’s shared responsibility. Right-wing populists have turned “intellectual” into a slur not only because they are suspicious of expertise (sometimes rightly so, sometimes not), but because those at the commanding heights of the intelligentsia have grown increasingly tribal, and increasingly reluctant to even afford the designation to people who don’t think like they do. That may not be the root of the problem, but it certainly doesn’t help.