Among the main casualties of the populist wave now surging through Western democracies is respect for policy expertise. Michael Gove, justice secretary in the UK government and cheerleader for Brexit, captured the climate on June 2. When reminded that informed opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to Great Britain leaving the European Union, Gove uttered the infamous words that will be his epitaph: "People in this country have had enough of experts."
Gove was scorning multiple respected institutions warning that Brexit would be a disastrous, self-inflicted wound. The studies in question came from the UK Treasury, the Bank of England, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, think tanks like the Centre for European Reform and Chatham House, the Confederation of British Industry, and throngs of economists. All agreed that Britain’s risky leap into darkness would gravely harm British trade, foreign investment, employment, and productivity. Gove’s riposte was a celebration of blissful ignorance, "as if knowledge was a hindrance to understanding," the Economist noted.
Gove is not the first political insurgent to dismiss expertise, of course. Political anti-intellectualism has a venerable pedigree, and tends to crest during political turmoil. His remarks echo those of the French Revolutionary judge who sent the chemist Antoine Lavoisier to the guillotine in 1794, with the curt observation: "La République n’a pas besoin de savants" (The Republic has no need of scientists). Subsequent revolutionaries, from Lenin to Mao to Pol Pot to Khomeini, have played the same game.
Gove reminds us that attacking the “expertise” of educated elites remains a staple tactic for populist demagogues in Western democracies, too. It is a cheap way to communicate authenticity and signal egalitarian solidarity with the "common man" (regardless of one’s own personal wealth), and to capitalize on class resentment at a time of economic stagnation and insecurity.
The populist tradition has a long history in the United States. Andrew Jackson was America’s first “everyman” president. Elected in 1828, the no-nonsense frontiersman promised a break from effete East Coast leaders like John Quincy Adams. Old Hickory’s main message, as the historian Richard Hofstadter explains in his Pulitzer-Prize winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, was that “practical common sense” was “more valuable than all the acquired learning of the sage.”
More than a century later, Republicans derided Adlai Stevenson, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, as an "egghead"— turning Stevenson’s intelligence into a liability. Eisenhower’s running mate, Richard Nixon, would adopt a similar strategy as president, depicting effete Harvard faculty club Democrats as out of touch with the concerns of the “silent majority” of Americans.
In recent years the populist temptation to dismiss expert knowledge has been most evident in the case of climate change. In the face of almost universal scientific agreement that the planet is warming and that human activity is a leading cause of this phenomenon, conservative politicians have persistently derided science to curry favor with their political base. Senator James Inhoffe of Oklahoma even penned a book titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Nor have presidential candidates been immune. As Florida Senator Marco Rubio was gearing up for his ultimately unsuccessful presidential run, he retreated from his previous acknowledgment of climate change. “I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate,” he told ABC News in a May 2014 interview. “Our climate is always changing.”
Donald J. Trump, who defeated Rubio to become the presumptive 2016 GOP nominee for president, similarly doubts that global warming “in any major fashion exists.” As he explained to talk radio host Hugh Hewitt last September,
I am not a believer, and I will, unless somebody can prove something to me, I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again. And it changes depending on years and centuries, but I am not a believer, and we have much bigger problems.
To be sure, the GOP has no monopoly on anti-intellectual populism. Some of the more extreme domestic policy and trade arguments advanced by Bernie Sanders, for instance, would not pass muster in economics departments. But in the current political season, it is Trump who has staked out the most audacious terrain, dismissing most expert opinion. (Besides his own, of course. As he famously told his Morning Joe hosts on MSNBC: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain. And I’ve said a lot of things.”)
Trump’s anti-intellectualism is worrisome for a candidate who has no experience in government at any level. Trump’s still skeleton crew of policy advisors stands in stark contrast to the extraordinary number that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has assembled to develop concrete positions on innumerable topics. Clinton’s entourage may be overkill—can she make effective use of several hundred foreign policy advisors? But at least she won’t be at a loss for policy options. Trump, meanwhile, has clung to a DIY approach and, as Washington Post blogger Dan Drezner points out, it shows. Given the improvised, seemingly seat-of-the-pants nature of his campaign positions, should one take his pronouncements seriously?
For those of us toiling in the ideas industry, the rise of populist anti-intellectualism presents a quandary, sharpening the ever-present question of relevance. We find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of Bill Clinton in the wake of the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” which swept the GOP to control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. “I am relevant,” the president famously protested. “The Constitution gives me relevance.”
The new populism poses a challenge to think tanks, which at their best provide independent, empirical analyses and recommendations on how to cope with vexing public policy dilemmas. Traditionally, think tanks have catered to elite audiences. But it is clear that this is no longer adequate. “In the post-truth politics that is rocking Western democracies,” the Economist observes, “illusions are more alluring than authority.” Going forward, broader civic education needs to be part of each think tank’s mandate. What makes this new mission especially urgent is the ongoing fragmentation of the marketplace of ideas—a trend accelerated by self-contained social media communities that reinforce each other’s biases and preconceptions.
In past decades, U.S. universities might have played a leading role in reversing these trends. But in too many cases, university curricula have moved toward arcane research debates and methodologies, avoiding matters of policy relevance. Think tanks can help fill this void if they recommit themselves to providing objective policy analysis on concrete problems—and work to get them heard by the widest possible audience. Policy debates are inevitable, and welcome. But they should at least be informed.