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Voter Refusing to Trust Experts Leads to Demagoguery
Tom Nichols’ new book, “The Death of Expertise,” comes at an important point in America’s political development. 62 million citizens cast a ballot for Donald J. Trump, whose entire campaign built on the idea that experts – whether in the “political establishment,” media, or academia – ignored the wants of common Americans and instead pushed some sinister, self-serving agenda. Decry it though we might, for many, the death of expertise has set in. To them, experts should not and will not be trusted.
That creates many problems for a democracy, chief among them the electorate’s susceptibility to (often extremist) demagogic appeals. Voters wary of experts tend to be uninformed by virtue of doubting or entirely avoiding the analysis of experts. Long-form journalism, the professor on CNN, knowledgeable elected officials cannot reach the voters who instead dwell in sources of alternate information that, at best, misinforms through low-quality output or, at worst, deliberately misleads those inclined towards non-mainstream views.
Such voters, as Nichols points out, fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which they are overly confident about their abilities to understand complicated policy. Thus when an ignorant candidate enters the race and espouses overly simplistic (and often entirely wrong) policy viewpoints, Dunning-Kruger voters embrace him or her whereas more sophisticated voters – those who still trust experts – shy away.
Nichols writes that
Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic system can provide. This sense of entitlement is one reason they are continually angry at ‘experts’ and especially at ‘elitists’…When told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism is a lot harder than it looks, Americans roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.
The demagogue, whether through true ignorance or a unique ability to manipulate people, recognizes this outlook and tailors a campaign around it. To pay obsequious court to the people, the demagogue often condescends to simplicity, using rhetorical appeals such as “I alone can fix” or “How stupid must [they] be to not solve these easy problems?” or otherwise boiling down complex issues into few-word soundbites that may energize the ignorant, but offer no solutions.
Donald Trump perfectly exemplifies this. He is truly ignorant, but his ignorance connects with a relatively large portion of the population that, like Trump himself, disdains experts and expects simple answers to all political questions. While other elements played into Trump’s ascension – racial anxieties and underlying sexism, to name a couple – his ability to connect over ignorance furthered his perceived populism and helped forge a lasting connection with millions of voters.
This problem lies in large part with the voters, an argument from which Nichols does not shy. He contends that such disdain for experts and its accompanying willingness to make one’s nest with an ignoramus simply because (s)he speaks a similar langue “is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.”
Voters must recognize the consequences of willful ignorance and see how it can hurt democracy. Only by accepting experts and the lessons they can teach – and only by experts maintaining their credibility and legitimacy – can a democratic political society resist demagoguery and adhere to its liberal founding principles.
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