NPR presented a preview tonight of an upcoming piece. The preview pointed to Americans’ disgust with experts – NPR even slipped in the word anti-intellectual – and added that we all think we’re just as smart as everyone else. Then they dropped in a fillip to ask whether this sound rejection of expertise isn’t bad for democracy. Well, do Americans reject experts, and if so, is that bad for democracy?
I won’t even try to answer the second question, though you’ll perceive my answer embedded in the last paragraph below. One wants to hear NPR’s argument, since the question creates opportunities to speculate about the historical relationship between experts and democratic traditions. Think of the Confucian system in China, for a system of government based on experts. Then think of de Tocqueville’s ideal of community organization in a democratic society, where group decision making and wisdom replace expert rule.
Now let’s take three examples of expert rule, and ask whether antipathy toward experts in the United States isn’t justified:
- Gruberization of the health care system via the ACA – “the American people are too stupid to know what’s in it.”
- American Psychological Association assists CIA with torture – including torture of children – and mind control via MKULTRA.
- President Obama, Lois Lerner and tax experts in the IRS target conservative groups for discriminatory treatment.
If that is not enough to make you think carefully about the harm elites cause when they presume superior knowledge leads to better decisions, consider two more:
- Paul Wolfowitz and company commit the biggest strategic blunder in U. S. history when they invade Iraq, in order to improve conditions there.
- Numerous banks and financial institutions decide to write fraudulent mortgages to make a little money on the American dream, then strong-arm their victims to back up their bad loans.
That’s not enough? Alright, let’s do a couple more:
- Nameless elites blow up at least one building in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001; other elites assigned to investigate the crime do not even try to accomplish their task.
- 55,000 American soldiers, and many more Vietnamese die in a war manufactured by the country’s ‘best and brightest’, a war based on – of all things – fake news from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Seven examples suffice to make the point. I like NPR’s suggestion that suspicion of elites undermines American democracy. We have already lost our democracy, our Constitution, and our republic, betrayed by elites who said we should trust them because they would protect us. If we had recognized these villains’ hidden purposes a little earlier – if we had not let them turn their so-called expertise into a powerful Big Brother state of tyranny – we might have saved our democracy. Instead we let elites trade on their knowledge. We’re supposed to respect people who know more than we do. Every day we suffer for their good intentions, transformed to all kinds of corrupt outcomes when their plans mingle with power.