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Revenge of the Nerds

Author: Peter Beinart
December 8, 2008
The Daily Beast

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By electing Barack Obama, the American people have proved a lot of political clichés wrong: that Americans wouldn't elect a black man, or a northern Democrat, or a senator, or someone without extensive national security experience in a time of war. But there's another cliché that has also bitten the dust, even though it hasn't received much attention. By electing Barack Obama, Americans have showed that you can win the presidency without appearing dumb.

For more than a half-century, anti-intellectualism has had a pretty good run in presidential politics. In fact, Republicans would never have gotten where they are without it. In the 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was born, the right had a problem: It was seen as elitist, a hangover from the depression years, when Thomas Nast-style plutocrats opposed social security, labor unions and federal aid to the poor. Conservatives needed a way to turn the tables, to show that liberals-those self-proclaimed tribunes of the common man-were the real elitists. That's where anti-intellectualism came in. If FDR had practiced class warfare, the Cold War right turned to brain warfare instead. William F. Buckley, founder of the right's flagship publication, National Review, began going around saying that "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

In the early 1950s, Richard Nixon slyly fused anti-intellectualism and anti-communism, calling Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson a "Ph.D. graduate of the College of Cowardly Communist Containment." And in his 1968 presidential bid, Alabama Governor George Wallace condemned "pointy-headed professors" who were imposing their liberal ideas on the segregated South.

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