Can We Make Governing Great Again?
Perhaps Our Crisis of Expertise Is Really a Crisis of Governance
“In this house, we trust science.”
How many times have I read that declaration on a lawn sign while walking down the street in Oakland or Berkeley or Austin or Boulder or Denver? It’s a political statement, a nod to the primacy of expertise in an era of “anything goes” when it comes to who we trust and who we believe. At first glance, a societal rift between politics and truth would seem a dangerous trend that heralds a host of future problems. How can our politics succeed if we can’t trust science? Or is such expertise a thing of the past? In a world where every political position seems to have its own “expert” opinion makers, has expertise been fully polarized, never to be broadly trusted again?
When I was growing up, it was always fights over evolution that called for an affirmation of science’s virtues. Today, it’s conflicts over climate; vaccines and other health issues; gender and biology; all kinds of issues where the province of science meets the reality of policy. And it’s not as simple as one side of the political spectrum defending science against the other. Each political persuasion has issues on which it upholds science and issues on which it tends to digress. Some issues, like vaccines, even boast crossover appeal.
The mistrust of expertise is also not limited to science. Americans love to question authority; it’s almost a founding religion. And anti-intellectualism has a long and rich tradition in the American political character. But in the last couple of years, Americans’ trust in science, medical authority, and even military authority has plummeted, according to Pew research surveys. As has their trust in elected leaders (which wasn’t that high in the first place). Expertise, too often, is seen as elite, infused with questionable incentives, and inherently untrustworthy if not downright nefarious. And in response to this trend, there’s been much hand-wringing about the dumbing down of the nation, and various attempts to reaffirm and even sanctify science—like those lawn signs.
None of this will come as a surprise. But I want to suggest something that might. In this contemporary reaffirmation of the primacy of science and expertise, there is a missing element. What’s absent is a dirty word: politics. When I say politics, I don’t just mean the act of getting elected, the narrow arena of parties and partisanship that has become synonymous with that term. I’m talking about the act of fashioning policy, building consensus, crafting legislation, communicating priorities, listening to stakeholders, executing initiatives, examining real impacts over the short and long term, analyzing outcomes, and taking responsibility. That’s also politics, or at least it should be. In that sense, we need more and better politics, not less. Or, to use another word, we need more governance. It’s in the absence of effective governance that so many have come to look for political salvation in the arms of expertise.
I would argue that one of the important roles of good governance is to translate expertise into smart policy. We need both. Politics without expertise may be blind and stupid, but expertise without political intelligence is blinkered, bureaucratic, and rife with unintended consequences.
I would argue that one of the important roles of good governance is to translate expertise into smart policy. We need both. Politics without expertise may be blind and stupid, but expertise without political intelligence is blinkered, bureaucratic, and rife with unintended consequences. We need that translation from expert opinion to political outcome, from science to policy. And we need to make space for it. Every time a politician, whether Left or Right, says they’re just “following the science,” you should be concerned that means that they’re collapsing the space between science and policy, between expertise and governance. An appeal to science or expertise alone cannot mitigate the challenge of crafting effective policy.
I first began to think about this distinction when as I was considering policies around climate. We can affirm the science of Climate Change every day and twice on Sunday, but there is still a huge gap between a scientific conclusion about what is happening in our atmosphere and actual policy that moves the situation forward, incorporates the many relevant issues, considers the alternatives, and makes a significant difference over the long term. That doesn’t just involve climate science; it involves energy policy and economics and engineering not to mention political concerns. Who wants to provide the leadership to incorporate all of those many interconnected, complex issues, and take responsibility for the resulting policy, which will inevitably have trade-offs and downsides? In other words, who wants to actually govern? It’s so much easier to retweet the conclusions of the IPCC, along with the appropriate pain and outrage.
This is certainly true in other fields as well. For example, we can affirm the unique military expertise of some of our nation’s impressive and experienced generals when it comes to prosecuting a war or executing military strategy. But we still need elected, accountable officials deciding whether or not to go to war in the first place. Don’t just tell me what the generals say! Military leaders shouldn’t be responsible for foreign policy, at least not solely. The question of “how to fight” calls out for experience and knowledge, but the question of “when to fight” needs something more—other areas of expertise, and perhaps most importantly, political accountability.
In the absence of engaged governance, it’s too easy to expect expertise to do political work for us. But that’s not its role. Expertise is deep and specific. Governing is broad, complex, and interconnected, favoring generalists and integrative thinkers. Experts are specialists, who naturally tend to focus on the area of their expertise and see the world in those terms. They bring essential information, but not the whole picture. In a business, for example, the CFO will give you the financial perspective. And any good CEO wants that perspective in the room. Give me the numbers. Don’t sugarcoat it. But the CEO also knows other perspectives are essential for good decision-making.
In the same way, if you ask an epidemiologist how to address a pandemic, they are likely to tell you exactly what needs to be done, from the perspective of protecting people’s health against a pandemic. And that’s important. Give it to me straight. No sugarcoating. But any policymaker must include more in the picture when it comes to making real policy choices. We’ve all seen these issues up and personal in the last years. We’ve watched our elected leaders weigh the pros and cons of restrictions and lockdowns—the economic impacts; the dangers of uncontrolled transmission; the mental and spiritual health consequences in addition to the physical ones; the impact of school closures on children and families; the resilience of the medical system; the responsibility of individuals; the role of the state; the political fallout, and on and on.
I’m not advocating here for a particular policy or criticizing one that was taken during Covid-19. My point is simply to use the pandemic to illustrate the fact that medical science and the resultant recommendations and advice that flow from it are not synonymous with policy decisions. But when we conflate them—as the media too often does—we end up transferring some, if not most, of the responsibility for governing onto our experts. We end making them into heroes and martyrs. We end up with “Dr. Fauci, devil or saint?” We end up with bureaucrats put in inappropriate roles. We end up with conspiracies about the “deep state.” We end up with executive actions filtered through layers of government, and far too little congressional involvement. We end up with cities run by zoning committees and expert consultants. We end up with decisions whose impacts are real but whose deliberations are far removed from both voters and accountable, elected officials. We end up failing at the complicated art of governance, and when we don’t want to govern, for whatever reason, we end up outsourcing that enormous responsibility to the bureaucratic state, whose expertise we can then either celebrate or decry.
Of course, we do need bureaucracies. We need governing institutions. But we don’t need politicians to transfer even more power and accountability to them in the name of “listening to the experts” or “following the science.” We need to stop thinking that expertise, on its own, is akin to governing. We have set it up on that impossible pedestal, and now we watch horrified as others get so much pleasure out of tearing it down.
Politics, Power, and Pedestals
So how do we evolve our capacity to govern? That is an enormous question, well beyond the scope of this article. But I’ll offer at least one suggestion. In order to more effectively govern, it will be necessary to have a more mature relationship to the experts in our society. And that means we need to unpack the strange tendency to fetishize expertise—the way in which people seem to want to put it on a high pedestal and simultaneously tear it down.
Those of us who are a bit older can still remember an era when certain types of expertise were held sacrosanct. Being a doctor, for example, had a certain prestige and natural authority associated with it. In that era, more traditional values still held some sway, which helped create a sense of social roles and hierarchies that were generally honored. But we’ve spent the last several decades dismantling those hierarchies in so many areas, and even as we castigate ourselves and social media for fostering a “know nothing” world, we should also remember that this cultural trend didn’t just arise for no reason. Experts over the last decades haven’t exactly clothed themselves in glory. Vietnam and Iraq, for example, were strategic failures and ethical disasters, brought to you by the smartest guys in the room. A series of economic crisis and environmental problems have rocked the public’s belief in the sage-like qualities of experts. Remember when subprime was contained? When inflation was transitory? Medicine itself has been notably wrong about many things over the years. Whenever experts are shocked by how little the public trusts them, it’s good to remind ourselves that this distrust has been, at times, well earned.
Still, one characteristic of cultural evolution is that there is a tendency to over-correct, even as we move forward. Expertise probably did need a few holes poked in it, but ejecting expertise from the conversation is a fool’s rebuttal to the problem of misplaced authority.
Indeed, one of the fallouts from a culture in which conventional forms of expertise have lost their influence is that conspiracies tend to thrive. In fact, whenever I think of our loss of faith in science and traditional expertise, I just consider the strange spectacle of the “flat earth” beliefs, recently expressed by several influential star athletes. Do they really think the earth is flat? At the risk of giving far too much airtime to such silly statements, I suspect that the point is more about an assertion of independence than an attempt to invalidate the obvious science. “Hey, I can think what I want. You people, with all of your round-earther beliefs, can’t tell me what I can believe and what I can’t! I have a right to my own opinion.” An admittedly bizarre place to plant your flag of intellectual independence, yes, but in a post-truth society, when everyone has their own perspective on everything; when it seems that anything can be faked or manufactured to look a certain way; when the real, the virtual, and the unreal all blend together; when there is always another side to the story; I guess it makes a bizarre sort of sense.
The problem is that while we’re out there asserting our intellectual independence, it’s easy to lose our way. Indeed, there comes a point in the development of any robust intellect when we see through some of the conventional, consensus narratives that once felt so solid, so true. The curtain is pulled back, ideas or perspectives or even people that we once held in high esteem are revealed to be empty of substance, and we have to rebuild our view of the world. That can and should be a profound moment of healthy learning, of individual evolution. God knows we need more genuinely independent thinkers. But if we’re not careful, we can collapse back into a reactive and unreflective mistrust of “experts,” “elites,” and “consensus narratives” dressed up as independent thinking. In some respects, our whole culture is going through this developmental funnel. We so easily swing between high pedestals and no pedestals. To move forward, we need to find some step in-between.
In some respects, our nation’s most recent administrations are instructive when it comes to this conundrum. After the politization of intelligence under the Bush administration and the failures in prosecuting the War on Terror, Obama was determined to restore smarts and intelligence to the nation’s government—remember his “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” foreign policy doctrine? As a result, he had one of the highest rates of Ivy League appointees in history and seemed determine to put the best and brightest—or at least the most academically decorated—of our nation’s elites to serve as beneficent managerial appointees, overseeing the nation’s business at all levels. And then Obama was followed by Trump, who seemed to relate to expertise in Washington as a disqualifying disease and wanted to rely more on Washington outsiders, his family, and his own gut instinct. Bluntness became a virtue and tearing down pedestals a new political blood sport. Following on from this great rejection of conventional expertise, the Biden administration seems intent on a great restoration. That seems like a good idea, and perhaps it is, although given the doubling down of this administration on Ivy League appointees, one has to wonder if the best and most creative minds must inevitably pass through the gates of an elite East coast educational institutions—as if the magic initials from the right graduate school next to one’s name immediately confer a higher level of decision-making. Surely there is much more than that to America’s talent pool. Ironically, it took Harvard’s Crimson magazine to question the wisdom of such over-representation from their ranks. They noted in the early days of the administration that there were 63 administration officials with Harvard ties, and felt compelled to point out that Harvard doesn’t have a “monopoly on brilliance” and that such an elite education “hardly ensures a range of abilities so exceptional and unmatched by the rest of the population to warrant our grotesque overrepresentation at the top of the political sphere.” When even Harvard is embarrassed by its own outsized influence, you might want to reconsider if you’re restoring actual expertise or a performative notion of what it used to be.
I would like to suggest a path forward that is neither rejection nor restoration. To begin, we must question the inevitable, if understandable, longing to go back. Back to a world in which certain roles just automatically conveyed a level of respect and authority.
I would like to suggest a path forward that is neither rejection nor restoration. To begin, we must question the inevitable, if understandable, longing to go back. Back to a world in which certain roles just automatically conveyed a level of respect and authority. Back to a world in which the public naturally trusted those in power to more or less make the right decisions. Back to a world in which we relied on a narrow selection of elite East Coast institutions to lead us forward. The penumbra of perceived power once conveyed by such positions and titles has been dispelled, and for better or worse, it’s not returning. The consensus narrative of the post-World War II order is broken. As with so many areas of life, we can’t put that world back together. The moral authority of traditional culture is too weakened; the intellectual authority of modern institutions is too compromised; and our cultural and intellectual worlds are too diverse. We can’t make expertise great again—at least not in that way.
But neither can we afford to collapse into a great flattening—to make a messy soup of our public square where the loudest, or those with the most “likes,” reign supreme. Where flat-earthers and round-earthers are just, you know, two opinions. Where all expertise is simply downstream from political points of view and not the other way around. Some expertise is foundational, essential! Some are indeed smarter, or wiser. Some do have more experience. Some key perspectives absolutely must be in the “room where it happens.” Elitism—in art, science, medicine, and most human endeavors—is no inherent sin. And mistrust of those with power is no inherent virtue.
Now, I can’t predict when or how the anti-authority mood of our culture might naturally shift into something more useful and functional, or if it will deteriorate into something more perilous. But until that time, we have work to do—the hard work of evolving what it means to stand on that pedestal of knowledge, experience, and expertise, especially when it comes to politics and governance. For the polity, this will mean that we stop the self-indulgent behavior of treating our nation’s elites as either deities or devils—even if they seem to comply with that characterization. There is, as scholar Andrew Delbanco once observed, an “unslaked craving for transcendence” in America, and it thrives to this day. But if we look for transcendence in our politicians or civil servants, they will inevitably disappoint—or I guess they could succeed, which might be even more dangerous. We absolutely need expertise; we just don’t need it shrouded in the pretense of infallibility, cloaked in back-room secrecy, or hidden in unaccountable bureaucracy.
For our nation’s elites, it will mean taking that courageous step of coming at least halfway down off the pedestal and starting to realize that the trust of the public is now something that must be earned, and ongoingly. It no longer comes with the office or the degree or the position or the background. That will require leaving behind some of the traditional trappings of authority, and communicating in a way that is more transparent, more approachable, and ultimately more accountable. It will mean relying on informed expertise, yes, but not hiding behind it. Let’s work to live in a world where the performance of expertise does not make you virtuous and the rejection of the same does not make you smart. Let’s empower and hold accountable the leaders of our republic, not just the experts of our government. And who knows, maybe somewhere along the way, we can make governing great again.