Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Death of the American Expert

One of the trends in America over the last decade has been the disparagement of experts—policymakers, analysts, and scholars. They are under fire, from the right and left, their standing is increasingly tarnished and diminished, and now find themselves wondering where and how they fit in American society. What has happened? And how did we get here? The answer, in brief, is that it hasn’t happened overnight and the causes are variegated and complex.

Arguably, the first meaningful trace of this was the election of George W. Bush in 2000. That election de-emphasized the notion of leader as expert. Sure, Bush was Ivy League-trained and was the former governor of Texas, impressive qualifications. But based on his speeches, interviews and debate performance, it was clear that he knew only a modest amount about foreign affairs, economics, and so on, especially relative to his Democratic rival for the presidency, Al Gore. But that mattered little to the electorate. American citizens were sick of a morally corrupt and scandal-ridden Clinton administration, under which Gore served as Veep. But another issue for Gore was the perception that he was an overzealous adult nerd, someone too anxious to tell anyone and everyone how much he knew and how much others didn’t. Bush, by contrast, didn’t emphasize his knowledge of the US or the world; instead, he rested his case on his supposed preternatural ability to make good decisions (based on information that his staff procures and sifts through). After all, he called himself “The Decider.”

But just as important, Bush portrayed himself as an ordinary American, a guy who loves the outdoors, works out, goes to church, cherishes his family, and so on. A key part of the Bush campaign in 2000 and in his reelection effort in 2004 was the Karl Rove-led strategy to demonstrate that he wasn’t different or better than the average American. In effect, the US was getting an ordinary Joe in office, not an expert or a member of the intelligentsia. It might sound silly, as Bush, since birth, has been a member of the political and economic American elite, but in his speech and walk and demeanor, he fully embraced the role of a guy with whom people wanted to have a coffee or beer.

Another milestone was the collapse of the American economy in 2008. That event damaged the credibility of and confidence in the expert community. US citizens wondered why the experts were unable to foresee the financial disaster and recommend measures to head it off. The experts got it wrong. They fundamentally failed to understand the macro-economic basics of the world economy as well as the micro-economic specific root causes of the US economic collapse. Moreover, there was (and still is) the belief that some of these experts were working against their national economies, trying to make a buck off the failure of these economies. In short, they were corrupt.

The third and latest iteration of the fall of the experts can been seen in rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s political ascension (and to a similar extent Bernie Sanders’s) signals a full-fledged turn against experts and a fact-based society by a significant portion of the electorate. Yes, Trump does repeatedly call attention to his alleged intelligence and his schooling at the famed Wharton School, but he prizes just as much, if not more so, his common sense, his ability to “get things done,” and his everyman sensibility. That’s why he bills himself as an “everyman billionaire”: Trump is just like any other American, except for his wealth and opulence. And it’s easy to create this tale, because it has bled into his life and campaign—whether by design or not.

Put simply, Trump knows little about the world, seems uninterested in much beyond making money and accruing power, and has surrounded himself with a cast of characters who are political neophytes at best and politically ignorant at worst. Despite these and other flaws, Trump is holding steady with Hillary Clinton in national and state polls. Trump’s appeal is based on a lowest-common denominator philosophy: he admittedly acquires knowledge from watching television, spins conspiracy theories, has a shaky relationship with facts, and engages in petty grade school-level name-calling against political opponents, journalists and critics.

What’s shaped and caused the above set of events? I see three main factors. First, there is the real sense among Americans that they’ve been unrepresented, ignored, excluded, and taken advantage of by national leaders, political parties, economic elites, scholars, and more—the very people who are supposed to know things about the us and the world. These disempowered and angry folks now want their voice to be heard, their interests acted upon, and their stake in the state to increase, precisely at the expense of the experts and elites. The successful Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns, built on the backs of the aggrieved and the outsiders, are the latest manifestation of this growing trend.

Second, the politicization of America’s media has also played a role here. It is routine to see news shows featuring officials, spokespersons and surrogates of the right and left debating various issues and problems. The media has done this in the name of being “fair and balanced,” and not tools of a particular ideology or party. Okay, but this has unleashed a nasty consequence: namely, the widespread belief that the left and the right each have their own set of facts—that facts themselves aren’t value or ideological neutral but are inherently politicized. In this world, there are no real experts, at least not the usual sense of the world, and anyone who claims that mantle is viewed with suspicion. Instead, there are glorified cheerleaders who marshal a liberal or conservative set of facts, on a particular pet causes and issues, that they then use to preach to the already-converted.

Third, the Internet has engendered a massive democratization of information. Nowadays, people can gather information in more ways than ever before, and they, including ordinary folks, can now also act as purveyors of information. No degree, lofty job, or significant life experience is needed; in fact, no real demonstrated expertise required to dispense “facts” and ideas to a global audience. As long as someone can plug into the Internet, that person can start a web site, a blog, a message board, a YouTube page, a Twitter and Facebook account, etc., from which they can share and spread ideas and acquire readers and followers—in the exact same ways, using the same tools, that credible and verifiable experts routinely do to disseminate research and insight. They all sit in the same worldwide e-domain and compete for attention. In fact, nowadays attention—in the form of followers and the number of likes—is conflated with expertise. That is to say, one must be an expert, so goes the logic, to have so many readers and followers. But that’s not necessarily the case, of course, and sometimes it can be far from it.

All of the above, by themselves and collectively, are serious and often harmful, quite frankly—for a variety of reasons, including a deleterious impact on American social cohesion, political polarization, and governmental performance, among other things.

On a micro, individual level, it’s difficult for Americans to participate in a highly sophisticated and competitive globalized US economy if they don’t value knowledge. In the end, such views only leave these folks farther behind politically and economically, and reinforces the tendency for them to feel victimized by larger, uncontrollable forces.

The larger picture suggests it’s hard for Americans to get on the same page politically, economically and socially if they can’t agree on a set of facts, have their own set of facts, and view those who disagree with them as outsiders and even at times enemies. Just as troubling, these circumstances reverberate upward, as they provide pressure on political elites to think and act in similar ways or risk getting punished at the ballot. This means politicians not only must disagree with the opposing political party but at times paint and treat that party as repugnant, vile and even traitorous. The product of the cycle is protracted political gridlock, a stymied policy process, and a continued tear at the fabric of America.

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