Sunday, December 8, 2019

Against Expertise

Ross Douthat's latest column returns to one of the themes of American politics over the past decade, a distrust of experts. "One of the key forces in American politics right now," he says, is
the distrust of technocracy, the sense that the smartest guys in each political coalition can’t really be trusted, the feeling that the whole model of credentialed meritocracy is corrupt and self-dealing and doesn’t deliver on its promises.
I think this is absolutely correct. In the US we have always had a strong strain of distrust for egg-headed experts, and recent events have only made this more intense. The financial collapse and the great recession that followed destroyed respect for economists and business leaders, and the unfolding disaster in the Middle East has done the same for the foreign policy establishment. Zig-zagging over medicine and the environment has reduced the reputation of science; a feeling that science has little to offer us in facing many of our problems has spread even among technocrats like me. The press has hardly covered itself with glory. Underlying all of this is the broad economic slowdown since 2000, along with a sense that we cannot solve either our current problems (disappearance of factory jobs) or those looming in the future (artificial intelligence).

This explains why even a technocrat like me is not very impressed by Elizabeth Warren's long litany of plans. Even if they could get through Congress, which I doubt, I don't know if they would make much difference, and I am certain that they will fail to impress most Americans. People are tired of plans.

What they want, it seems to me, is something much more straightforward. As Douthat says about Bernie Sanders, his popularity comes from his moralism and his "politics of righteous struggle." Everybody knows what Sanders stands for, what he would do in almost any situation. But not everyone wants socialism, and even some of those who do think it's a political loser.

Which brings me to what really interested me about Douthat's piece, his take on Joe Biden:
This is clearly the appeal of the other non-technocrat in the Democratic field, the still-front-running Joseph Biden. Of course the former vice president also has plans and policy papers — no Democrat lacks them — but even more than Sanders he’s running as a non-wonk, an anti-technocrat, the guy who’ll shout “malarkey!” when the clever McKinsey guy shows up with the white paper. . . .

Despite his constant invocations of Obama, Biden no less than Sanders (and much more than Buttigieg and Warren) is running against the Obama governmental style, and especially the first-term Obamanaut confidence in intelligence and expertise as the essential oil of governance. If Sanders woos voters by saying, why not elect a moralist instead of an expert, Biden woos them by saying, how about we just elect a [expletive] politician?
I think that captures Biden's appeal. Ideologically he is close to the Democratic mainstream, in style he is closer to working and lower middle class voters than any other Democrat, and he has a "no bullshit" schtick that resonates in this moment. I think the main question about him is whether he has the dynamism to sustain a long campaign against Trump, and whether in the end he would just look old and tired compared to Trump's explosiveness.

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