One of the many lessons of the current pandemic is that electing leaders who sneer at expertise and make war on science was a big mistake.
In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis defended the federal bureaucracy, and pointed out how significantly the tasks they perform – from maintaining nuclear waste to forecasting the weather–depends upon knowledge and training. In a recent interview, Lewis pointed to the Trump camp’s “glaring ignorance” of government’s responsibilities and the expertise required to discharge those responsibilities.
I’ve previously blogged about Trump’s effort to eject scientists from the federal bureaucracy–a fixation exceeded only by his determination to purge anyone responsible for oversight–but the excessive anti-intellectualism of this administration isn’t simply due to Trump. It’s the result of a longstanding Republican “culture war” strategy in which educated folks are demonized as “elitists.”
“Real” Americans don’t put on fancy airs, or point out when policies aren’t based on facts.
As the “Big Sort” has accelerated America’s cultural differences, the GOP has found it easier to sneer at the effete intellectuals who flocked to congenial urban neighborhoods.(I recently read that House Democrats represent 78 percent of all Whole Foods locations, but only 27 percent of Cracker Barrels.) Trump doesn’t understand much, but he does recognize that most of those remaining in the dwindling GOP- -whiter, older and more Christian than the country as a whole–don’t care about policy, or about voting what others might consider their own self-interest. They see themselves as an identity group under threat, and they’ll follow anyone who speaks to their sense of grievance. It’s easy to convince them that coastal “elitists” look down on them.
The GOP’s constant assault on knowledge, professionalism and education has had a predictable effect on trust in all the institutions necessary to democratic self-governance.
A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on the degree to which the erosion of trust has made us more vulnerable to this pandemic, and noted that Trump is “merely the apotheosis of a political approach that has animated much of the conservative movement for a half century or more: undermining trust in the media, science, and government.”
For America to minimize the damage from the current pandemic, the media must inform, science must innovate, and our government must administer like never before. Yet decades of politically-motivated attacks discrediting all three institutions, taken to a new level by President Trump, leave the American public in a vulnerable position.
Trump has consistently vilified the national media. When campaigning, he called the media “absolute scum” and “totally dishonest people.” As president, he has called news organizations “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” over and over. The examples are endless. Predictably, he has blamed the coronavirus crisis on the media, saying “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media.”
Science has been another Trump target. He has gutted scientific expertise and administrative capacity in the executive branch, most notably failing to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Centers for Disease Control itself and disbanding the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics. During the coronavirus crisis, he has routinely disagreed with scientific experts, including, in the AP’s words, his “musing about injecting disinfectants into people [to treat COVID-19].” This follows his earlier public advocacy for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, also against leading scientists’ advice. Coupled with his flip-flopping on when to lift stay-at-home orders, the president has created confusion and endangered people.
Finally, President Trump has consistently demeaned essential government agencies, labeling them part of a “deep state.”
An article originally from Salon looked at the history of empiricism and its importance:
What Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts“. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.
In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt summed it up:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Since at least the 1960s, the GOP has waged a sneering assault on “elitists” who respect empirical inquiry, and pursue facts, knowledge and expertise. The result is that today’s Americans occupy alternate realities. Denigrating knowledge, however, is equivalent to a demand that we disarm the front-line soldiers fighting our wars.
That is no way to fight a pandemic–or run a country.