Wednesday, December 01, 2004

# Posted 1:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THIS IS A RESPONSE from Prof. Colleen Shogan to a recent post on OxBlog. The response has not been edited.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond to Mr. Adesnik’s critique of my working paper on anti-intellectualism and Republican presidents. While I do not question Mr. Adesnik’s right to criticize my paper, I believe his characterizations of my research and my own integrity as a scholar are severely misconstrued.

First, Mr. Adesnik selected quotations from my paper completely out of context. Several readers of Oxblog actually went to the Miller Center website, read the entire paper, and contacted me to dispute Mr. Adesnik’s depiction. For example, Mr. Adesnik implies that I disparage Reagan for his anti-intellectualism. This is simply incorrect. In fact, I argue that Reagan’s firm ideological beliefs provided him with the political skills needed to succeed in the presidency. In the paper, I discuss an anecdote provided to me, courtesy of interviews I conducted with Ed Meese and Martin Anderson, about Reagan’s desire to keep his intellectual pursuits hidden from the public’s eye. Reagan understood the political value of anti-intellectualism. In my mind, that doesn’t make Reagan a naïve simpleton; on the contrary, it makes him a sophisticated, savvy politician. The same can be said for George W. Bush, who I argue is the most skilled operator of anti-intellectualism. Bush’s anti-intellectualism allows him to rebuff political opposition and disarm his opponents—a very shrewd tactic in today’s polarized Beltway climate.

Mr. Adesnik’s commentary neglects the driving force of my thesis: anti-intellectualism is an effective political strategy because it enables presidents to demonstrate forceful independence. In my paper, the section on Bush makes this point very clear. Bush’s ability to demonstrate this forceful independence generates an aura of confidence surrounding his leadership that is difficult, if not impossible, to neutralize. As my dissertation adviser Stephen Skowronek wrote in The Politics Presidents Make, the presidency is an “order-shattering” institution which thrives on independent leadership. It is my contention that Bush uses anti-intellectualism as one resource for demonstrating that charged independence. This is the crux of my paper, yet Mr. Adesnik never mentions it. This is what presidential scholars are interested in—how political strategies affect the essence of executive power and the institution of the presidency itself.

This is not to say that my paper is perfect. It is a work in progress. In my opening remarks at the Miller Center, I explained that while I was reasonably satisfied with the case studies (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush) in the paper, I needed to work on the causal explanations of Republican anti-intellectualism. The most instructive comments in this regard were not provided to me by Mr. Adesnik, who seemed overly concerned with my supposed liberal bias, but from Professor Brian Balogh, who co-directs the Miller Center American Political Development project. Professor Balogh observed that I need to pay attention to how intellectuals have changed since World War II. Whereas Richard Hofstadter used to write history books for the masses, now our most prominent scholars are not widely read. A gap between the academy and the public has grown, which may also explain the rise in popularity of anti-intellectual appeals.

Lastly, I want to address Mr. Adesnik’s characterization of my own political beliefs and their alleged effect on my scholarship. For me, this is the most distressing part of Mr. Adesnik’s public remarks. Although he had never met me, Mr. Adesnik assumed that I was part of some left-wing academic conspiracy that aims to discredit all Republicans as stupid morons. This is perhaps the best example of an academic bias and arrogance—the willingness to assign a label to someone without any corroborating evidence.

After Mr. Adesnik accused me at the Miller Center forum of a liberal bias, two individuals in the room, Professor Sid Milkis (co-director of the American Political Development project) and Russell Riley (Project Leader of the Presidential Oral History Project at the Miller Center) both vouched publicly that Mr. Adesnik’s comments about my scholarly integrity were inaccurate and misplaced. In particular, Mr. Riley assured Mr. Adesnik that he would have never selected me to conduct interviews with former White House staffers (both Republicans and Democrats) for the Presidential Oral History Project if he detected any hint of a political bias that impeded my work. Quite conveniently, Mr. Adesnik did not include the remarks of Mr. Riley and Professor Milkis in his Oxblog entry. Apparently, Mr. Adesnik felt he knew more about my intellectual motivations than two senior scholars I have worked with for most of my professional career. Clearly, I am not the one who suffers from intellectual arrogance.

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