Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Senator Barack Obama. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
The talk of town these days is that Senator Barack Obama is either just too cerebral, or refreshingly so.
Assessing the Senator’s weak performance at the Saddleback Faith Forum, Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post, “Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral — the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. ” Yet to others, cerebral is good. “Obama’s cool, cerebral style may be just what we need,” wrote Eleanor Clift of Newsweek.
It has occurred to me that people who agree or disagree with my thesis about The Anti-intellectual Presidency have tended to be divided on the question of whether or not a president’s political judgment should be based on intellection or intuition. This division may appear to some to map crudely along partisan lines: some liberals and Democrats tend to value reliance on the intellect; some conservatives and Republicans prioritize instinct. I think there is more agreement than meets the eye.
Insofar as there is a partisan disagreement, populist Republicans are probably right that as a general political rule, visceral trumps cerebral. The Obama campaign is starting to recognize this, with their choice of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, someone who speaks with passion and sometimes, apparently, without much prior thought.
But I don’t think many people are against intellection as a method for decision-making. It is surely a strawman argument that President Bush does no thinking and that Karl Rove was the brain behind his decisions. The key is that Bush pulls off the semblance of intellectual diffidence, even though he must do a lot of thinking behind the scenes. Like others have said of President Dwight Eisenhower, President Bush has mastered the highest political art that conceals art itself.
Now, there is still an argument to be made for judgment to be based on intuition rather than intellection, but it is a weak one. “Go with your gut” may be a familiar refrain, but even if intuition is less error-prone than intellection, there is one reason that recommends against its excessive use. Intuition is non-falsifiable. No one can prove what he feels in his or her gut. So when President Bush told us that he looked into Vladamir Putin’s eyes and saw a soul, we could only take his word for it that he saw what he saw. We couldn’t test the claim; we couldn’t even debate it. This can’t be what democracy is about, because democracy is conducted with the deliberation of public reasons, not the unilateral assertion of private emotions.
If I am correct, then no one disagrees with the importance of intellection as a decision-making method, even as there is disagreement on the political utility of projecting or hiding such intellection. The disagreement is about the image, but we can scarcely deny the importance of the process of intellection. Because they have failed to make this distinction between image and process, those who disagree with the appearance of intellection have also wrongly concluded that the process of intellection should have no place in leadership.
Anti-intellectualism is politically powerful, but it is in the end self-defeating. Suppose I feel in my gut that intellection is key to decision-making. How will someone who disagrees with my gut instinct prove my intuition wrong? Only by argument, debate, intellection.