Ignorance is bliss in America. We relish our vacuity. The roots of this disdain for learning and, critically, the learned, go way back. The Anti-Federalists argued that the Federalists, a “privileged, sophisticated minority,” were out to tyrannize America, a theme echoed over the years by other supposed spokesmen of the common man, including, most recently, Tea Party standard-bearers.
In the New Republic, Bill McKibben writes about one current manifestation of anti-intellectual backlash: climate change denial. Just one GOP candidate running for the Senate this election cycle, Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, believes a scientific consensus exists that humans are responsible for rising global temperatures—and he might lose! The other 36 Republican aspirants are highly dubious of the notion.
The flat-earthers include Marco Rubio of Florida. Even though rising ocean levels from melting polar icecaps imperil his low-lying state, Rubio criticized one of his opponents for being “a believer in man-made global warming.” He then added, “I don’t think there’s the scientific evidence to justify it. The climate is always changing.” Ron Johnson, running for the Senate from Wisconsin, goes further: “It’s far more likely that [the cause of rising temperatures is] just sunspot activity.”
If Rubio and Johnson win—and they’re both ahead—then they will join James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the most senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over climate matters. Inhofe has promised that the committee will “stop wasting all of our time on all that silly stuff, all the hearings on global warming” if the GOP gains control of the chamber.
Climate change skepticism runs deep. While roughly half of Americans see global warming as a threat, only 14 percent of Tea Party supporters believe likewise. Lisa Deaton, founder of a Tea Party affiliate in Columbus, Indiana speaks for many of her political persuasion. “They’re trying to use global warming against the people,” she told the New York Times, apparently in reference to Democrats, or perhaps scientists. “It takes away our liberty.”
While such noxious populism is a constant motif in American life, it tends to crest during periods of upheaval. High unemployment, stagnant wages, and Gilded Age-levels of income inequality have fed the backlash against a phantom menace: the despotism of bookish elites. Predictably, the sentiments are being stoked by a real menace, self-serving economic elites.
The fossil fuel industry has lavished support on many Tea Party-backed candidates and groups like FreedomWorks that are mobilizing conservative voters. An analysis by the left-leaning American Progress Action Fund found that since 2009, oil, coal, and utility interests have spent $500 million to defeat cap and trade legislation aimed at limiting carbon emissions, including donations to candidates who oppose such regulation.
The war, however, has multiple fronts. Conservative intellectuals are doing their part by feeding the narrative of liberal arrogance. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson takes Obama to task for being an “intellectual snob.”
Gerson cites a speech the president gave before Democratic donors. “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” Obama told the crowd, “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.”
It’s an accurate statement. People are scared, and for good reason: American prosperity and place in the world seem threatened. According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, nearly half of those surveyed think the country’s best days are behind it. In such a fraught atmosphere, engaging in rational policy discussions, including those about climate change, can be challenging, as Obama points out.
Making matters worse is right wing demagogy about death panels, creeping totalitarianism, and Muslims and Latinos. The fear mongering also relates to proposed climate policy, which FreedomWorks calls a “power grab” (by you-know-who). But such divisive techniques go unmentioned by Gerson, the former head speechwriter to that apostle of humility, George W. Bush, who says Obama’s statement contains “some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.”
So there you have it. Moneyed interests fund a revolt against the pointy-heads. Conservative intellectuals stoke the flames, repeating bogus charges of liberal elitism. If successful, uppity lefties are put in their place and the wealthy few are restored to power, their rightful place. It all makes sense as long as you suspend your disbelief. Don’t worry, though, ignorance is bliss.