Enter the Experts

Even as Roosevelt was campaigning against the economic elites and rallying supporters with the rhetoric of class conflict, he was introducing a new kind of elite into national government: the highly specialized, often academically connected expert. Roosevelt’s New Deal was both shaped and run by these people—economists, lawyers, agronomists, scientists, and the like. Together they became known as FDR’s “Brains Trust.”

This wasn’t the first time experts participated in government. At the turn of the 20th century, many of the reforms associated with the Progressive Era were the products of intellectual expertise. They filled a need that seemed both obvious and urgent.

As American life became altogether more complex, complicated, and beyond the control of 19th century political and social structures, growing numbers of people came to believe that only scientific rationality could tame the forces of industrial capitalism and the problems it caused.

That view of American society was given its fullest expression in 1914 by journalist Walter Lippmann in his book Drift and Mastery. “We are all of us immigrants in the industrial world,” Lippmann wrote, “and we have no authority to lean upon.” Science and expertise promised “mastery” of this brave new world; without it, America was doomed to drift.

The journalist Walter Lippmann in 1914, the year he published Drift and Mastery in which he heralded the benefits of expertise (left). A member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell had been an economic professor at Columbia University. In this photo from the early 1930s, he was holding a press conference about a new act regulating food and drugs (right).

Progressive experts found themselves on the margins of political life during the 1920s, but after the economic collapse of the Great Depression, Roosevelt brought expertise back to Washington with a vengeance. As Depression turned to war and World War II slid into Cold War, experts and the new class of intellectual elites became a central part of the governing apparatus of the nation.

In 1946, Congress created the Council of Economic Advisers, and the following year it created the National Security Council. In 1951, Harry Truman established the Science Advisory Committee. After the launch and orbit of the Sputnik satellite and the ensuing panic over the state of American science, Dwight Eisenhower gave the Committee more heft by renaming it the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1957.

President Harry S. Truman meeting with his cabinet in 1949 (left). President Dwight D. Eisenhower chatting with members of his cabinet while inspecting a prototype of a new plane in the early 1950s (right).

All three of these bodies share three things in common: first, they are housed within the executive branch of government and provide information and counsel to the president; second, they reflect the need in the postwar world for expertise about domestic matters and foreign and military policy; finally, they are composed (or are supposed to be composed) of experts, appointed rather than elected to their positions.

Like Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard. And like FDR, JFK brought to Washington a cadre of experts and academics (many of them, naturally, from Harvard) that collectively came to be known as “the best and the brightest”—men like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. “You can’t beat brains,” Kennedy was fond of saying and he wanted to be surrounded by them.

President John F. Kennedy conferring with National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy in 1962 (left). President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara meeting outside the Oval Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (right). Both Bundy and McNamara had been Harvard Professors before joining the Kennedy administration.

This network of intellectual elites ran through government, foundations, universities, and think tanks. While members of this network might disagree with one another over policy choices, they created a remarkable continuity and consensus, at least for 20 years or so after the Second World War. So well established was this Establishment by 1956 that sociologist C. Wright Mill could call them “The Power Elite” in a book of the same title.

Many who belonged to this power elite came from old families and grew up cossetted with family money, but wealth was not what made them part of this elite. Rather, membership came from a combination of intellect and public service. McNamara, for example, was the son of a man who worked for a wholesale shoe company in San Francisco.

They went to the same small set of schools—Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and a few others—and many distinguished themselves during World War II. After the war, they set about running the country.

The Revolt against the Elites

During the 1952 presidential campaign, a supporter of Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson called out to him at a campaign event: “Governor Stevenson! All thinking people are for you!” To which Stevenson replied, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”

A 1952 campaign poster for Adlai Stevenson that emphasizes the continuity between candidate Stevenson and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and the benefits for working people Stevenson would protect.

Even as they settled into power during the Cold War, this intellectual elite found itself under attack, first from the political right. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in his shambolic and vicious crusade against communists, directed a great deal of his bile at East-coast, Ivy-League-educated members of the State Department.

McCarthy wasn’t merely grinding a personal ax, however. Plenty of conservatives during the era harbored suspicions about “eggheads” who included, as the right-wing magazine The Freeman complained in 1951, “Harvard professors, twisted-thinking intellectuals … in the State Department burdened with Phi Beta Kappa keys and academic honors.”

In the now-infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia that launched his career, McCarthy announced that the nation was infested with communists and blamed “the bright young men” with “the finest college education” for the disease.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (right) lecturing Joseph Welch (left), Chief Senate Counsel for the United States Army, during the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations’ McCarthy-Army hearings in 1954.

McCarthy never did find any communists lurking at the State Department or anywhere else. But his attacks on those over-educated, “over-emotional,” “feminine,” and “self-conscious prigs,” as right-winger Louis Bromfield described the “egghead,” did get a number of State Department employees fired. When they departed, they took considerable expertise with them, especially about the communist world. It left American diplomacy badly positioned during the crucial period that followed.

Gone, however, was the equation of “elite” with wealth and privilege. For McCarthy, a Princeton or Columbia education was far more threatening to the health of the Republic than inherited fortunes or control over huge corporations.

In 1963, William Buckley, a harpsichord-playing, European-educated son of wealth with a reptilian smile and a love of his own erudition, demonstrated that he was no elite when he quipped, “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” Of course Buckley went to Yale, so perhaps this was more about old school rivalries than about Buckley’s man-of-the-people bona fides.

William F. Buckley Jr. addressing the National Press Club in 1965 as the Conservative Party’s mayoral candidate for New York City (left). Sociologist C. Wright Mills with journalist Saul Landau, date unknown (right).

C. Wright Mills, however, was hardly a man of the right. In fact, he coined the term and became an inspiration to the “New Left” of the 1960s. He too saw much to dislike about the new power elite, though for different reasons.

If those on the right objected to intellectuals for broadly cultural reasons—educational pedigree, coastal addresses, cosmopolitan tastes—Mills saw the power elite as fundamentally anti-democratic. They framed the choices, set the terms of the debate, and often made the decisions that shaped the lives of people not only in the United States but around the world as well. No one had elected them to do all that.

This is where the young people of the New Left started to grow disenchanted with the Establishment.

By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War corroded faith in the elite entirely. Not only was the war a military and moral failure, but Americans had been repeatedly lied to about it—and regularly by members of the power elite.

That all became crystal clear in 1971 with the release of the Pentagon Papers. The following year, journalist David Halberstam published a study of the early years of American involvement in Vietnam, examining how the decisions made in the Kennedy White House led inevitably and inexorably to tragedy and disaster. He titled it with no small sense of irony: The Best and the Brightest.

President John F. Kennedy with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell D. Taylor and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discussing a possible coup in Vietnam in 1963 (top left). McNamara lecturing on Vietnam during a 1965 press conference (top right). South Vietnamese women welcoming McNamara to Saigon in 1964 (bottom left). Opponents of the Vietnam War demonstrating against McNamara in 1967 (bottom right).

By the 1970s, for those on one side of the political spectrum, Vietnam poisoned their trust in the intellectual elite. Experts were really amoral technocrats; science was responsible for atomic weapons and napalm and it too was fundamentally inhumane.

For those on the other side of the political spectrum, the McCarthyite connection between intellectuals and communists meant that the former could never be trusted. And by the end of the 1960s, college campuses had become bastions of long-haired, dope-smoking anti-Americanism.

Hard hats left on a White House table after a construction trades group met with President Richard Nixon three weeks after the Hard Hat Riot between construction workers and war protesters.

May 8, 1970 provides a symbolic moment of sorts marking the shift in our attitudes about elites. On that day about 1,000 college (and high school) students gathered in Lower Manhattan to protest the American invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. They were attacked by construction workers in what became known as “the hard hat riot,” and more than 70 people were injured.

In the 1930s, “hard hats”—blue-collar union members—had marched in the streets against factory owners and bankers and found a champion in Franklin Roosevelt. By 1970s, they were beating up students while Richard Nixon smiled in the White House.

The Paradox of American Anti-Intellectualism

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” the politician and policymaker Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say in the 1960s, “but not to his own facts.” The line seems so antique now in our “post-truth” age, when people in positions of authority can proffer “alternative facts” with a straight face.

In fact, the right-wing attack on intellectual elites—and on the campuses where they reside and the expertise they generate—began in earnest during the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan regularly offered his own alternative facts when they suited his world view, like the “fact” that trees cause air pollution. He summarized his own college education by saying, “Going to college offered me the chance to play football for four more years.”

By the early 21st century, conservatives dismissed all sorts of things they did not like as conspiracies of intellectual elites, even in the face of settled science. Creationism came roaring back in the 1980s and religious fundamentalists insisted that it be taught in high school biology classes. George W. Bush agreed with them. The climate is changing too, but only if you listen to the egg-headed scientific elites.

President Ronald Reagan meeting with Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1984 (left). Governor Bobby Jindal speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013 (right).

In 2013, Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, pleaded with his fellow Republicans to “stop being the party of stupid” and begged them to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” Four years later that plea sounds just as quaint and distant as Moynihan’s quote.

There is a long anti-intellectual tradition in American life. In 1963, the great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about it.

The irony of that tradition is this: never has a nation put so much faith in the power of education to achieve its aspirations of equality, prosperity, and freedom. Thomas Jefferson knew that the very Republic depended on it. “An educated citizenry is as vital for our survival,” he wrote, “as a free people.”

Public intellectual and Columbia University professor, Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963.

States responded to this need by establishing free public school systems for their children. In 1863 the Federal government created the most democratically accessible system of higher education in the world when it sponsored the land-grant colleges.

It expanded that access even further after the Second World War when the GI Bill was passed. Education, Americans have always believed, can produce Jefferson’s “well-informed electorate” and put them on the path of upward mobility.

At the same time, there is no other country in the developed world so fundamentally hostile to experts, academics and other intellectual “elites.” Apparently, Americans want our children to be educated, provided they don’t actually learn anything. Four years of football after all and one wonders what Thomas Jefferson would make of the well-educated citizenry now.

At a moment when billionaires can successfully masquerade as “populists,” gone are the “economic royalists” from our political discourse. The real elites are journalists, researchers, and college professors. They now pose the greatest threat to the nation.

“Ignorance is strength,” George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, and he wrote the book as a cautionary tale. Today’s populists, as they rage against the educated elite, seem to have adopted it as a how-to manual.


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