Mayor Pete is gaining some momentum in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary. As a mayor from a mid-sized city in Indiana, he has to be considered a very long shot, but I’ve enjoyed seeing his profile raising a bit. His auto-biography has been well-received and he made effective use of a town hall slot on CNN. However, I cringed a bit when I saw a tweet making the rounds talking about how he’d learned Norwegian to read more books by a Norwegian author for whom he could not find translations. I mean, that’s obviously very impressive, but talking about how smart he is doesn’t do him any political favors.
In a blog post about him I wrote about nine years ago when he was running for Treasurer, I mentioned, “we have an anti-intellectual streak a mile wide in this country where we want politicians to go with their gut and not any silly book-learnin’.” At the time, I believe I was still irritated a bit about Jill Long-Thompson’s campaign against Mitch Daniels for governor where she seemed to mention that she had a Ph.D. about every fifth sentence. That stuff does not impress American voters (and probably impresses Hoosier voters even less). We prefer “common sense” and “street smarts.” (Obligatory Einstein quote: “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”) I think our ambivalence about education has something to do with discomfort about the class system we like to ignore having in the U.S.
We don’t have titled nobility, and class warfare is for Communists. This is America where all men are created equal, and you rise and fall on your own merit. This cherished belief creates a blind spot which makes us ill-equipped to explain the success of mediocrities like George W. Bush or Donald Trump. Blue collar workers are resentful of the out-sized influence the professional classes like lawyers, doctors, and accountants seem to have on their personal lives — they feel keenly that these white collar types are looking down their noses at them. But, because we pretend to live in a classless meritocracy, we lack the vocabulary to talk about structural impediments to people rising or falling based on individual merit. So, to some extent, I think the unspoken resentments over social class gets translated into a distrust of highly educated, intellectual types.
Anyway, that’s a long way to go to say that I don’t think Pete’s self-teaching himself Norwegian will win him many votes. I suppose it’s some sort of progress that I think his educational achievements are likely to cost him more votes than the fact that he’s gay. (We’re maybe getting better at talking about social justice issues than we are about social class issues).