Allow me to surprise precisely no-one with the following: though bemused by his faux-intellectualism, something other sites are picking up on, too, we’re not big fans of Newt Gingrich here. In fact, I don’t think many people are. I once knew a director of his district office, who had nothing but bad to say about the disgraced Speaker (which he made clear with a killer impression of him, complete with whiny voice). But somehow Gingrich has run all the way to the front of the Republican pack as a Beltway-insider policy wonk, and even shown some signs of staying power, despite a Republican base that’s largely skeptical of both political experience, and, well, intelligence. How?
We might frame Gingrich’s rise as the result of two competing trends in the Republican Party. On the one hand, the classical conservatism that trusts the knowledge of the “common man” over that of the educated elite, as drawn from William F. Buckley and, well, Stephen Colbert (YouTube — 1:40-2:25). And on the other hand, the new vein of Tea Party thought that fetishizes any knowledge of the founding era, especially dimly understood, disconnected, and self-serving anecdotes. If the latter trend trumps the former, Gingrich’s success makes sense, and explains why moments like his braggy promise to teach a history course from the White House don’t sink him. (As a counterfactual, imagine the Republican reaction if President Obama promised to teach a constitutional law course from the White House: “Egotistical fascist pledges to indoctrinate children,” the National Review headline would read.)
But maybe it’s simpler than that. Gingrich’s “understanding” of history manages to validate each erroneous Tea Party hunch about American history and its relevance to the modern era, marshaling an impressive set of out-of-context quotes to justify each deeply flawed plank of their theoretical platform. As an example, the Supreme Court, Gingrich explains in one “white paper” (pdf), was always meant to be weak! It’s all there in the Federalist Papers:
Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. [. . .] It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”
… So long as you imagine Hamilton was proposing rather than describing, trade the underlined “will” for a “must” or a “should,” and ignore context.
By this reading, all Gingrich has done is invent a new way to pander to the Tea Party demographic, a group already primed to accept shoddy history by pundits like Glenn Beck, and by a field equally ignorant of constitutional history. And so long as he uses his professorial persona to further their cause, he can walk the line between “constitutional scholar” and “elitist” without offending either side of the Republican coalition.
There’s a lesson here, too: if earned knowledge isn’t dangerous or “elitist,” except where it disagrees with Republican dogma, it seems to me that Republican anti-intellectualism isn’t a first principle, a deeply-held article of faith, or derived from any sort of respect for the common man. It’s just a coping mechanism, to ignore, stigmatize, or defeat a Democratic Party that’s, on the whole, better at the science of governing. Knowledge isn’t wrong; liberal knowledge is wrong. Good to know.