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Why do rightwing populist leaders oppose experts?

Jan-Werner Müller
Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It is conventional wisdom that populists are against “elites” – and experts in particular. But rightwing populists aren’t opposed to all elites – they only denounce professionals who claim authority on the basis of special knowledge. Their perverse version of rightwing anti-authoritarianism implies that there is nothing wrong with the wealthy; in fact, the latter can be superior sources of wisdom. Trump putting the advice of “business leaders” above that of infectious disease experts is likely to yield deadly results. But it’s important to understand that the systematic denigration of professionalism started not with the populists – Reagan, Thatcher and other cheerleaders for neoliberalism led the way.

Related: Under coronavirus, ideologies are overturned around the world. But it is too little, too late | Jeff Sparrow

Populists are often criticized for being great simplifiers, when the world is in fact highly complex. For those who take Trump to be the paradigmatic populist of our day, it’s easy to conclude that populists are constantly lying and ushering in a “post-truth” era, in which falsehoods exclusively produced by the daily White House reality TV show are literally turning out to be deadly.

But this picture is itself simplistic. Populists are not by definition liars. They are only committed to one particular empirical falsehood: the notion that they, and only they, represent what populists often call “the real people” – with the implication that other politicians are not only corrupt and “crooked”, but traitors to the people, or, as Trump has often put it, “Un-American”.

More important, it’s not true that today’s rightwing populists are indiscriminately against all elites. They only denounce professionals. Trump supporters did not find it scandalous that his cabinet was full of Wall Street figures. The base does not resent the rich – rather, it aspires to be rich. In their eyes, the wealthy have earned their money, an objective indicator of their “hard work”, or the fact that they really produced something (never mind that the likes of Ross and Mnuchin have never created anything and only shifted money around).

These supposed movers and shakers contrast starkly with professionals who claim authority on the basis of education and special licensing – think lawyers, doctors and professors. Such figures can automatically be maligned by rightwing culture warriors as “condescending” – after all, they tell other people what to do, because they claim to know better. According to Nigel Farage, for instance, the World Health Organization is just another club of “clever people” who want to “bully us”.

Is the success of the Trumps, Bolsonaros and Johnsons of this world proof that the people can always be seduced by demagogues – and simply don’t know what’s good for them? Distrust of professionalism does not come out of nowhere. Neoliberalism paved the way for these attitudes. Margaret Thatcher memorably held that academics didn’t really do any work; in fact, they all – with the possible exception of scientists – seemed to be lefties wasting taxpayers’ money. Tories introduced the imperative constantly to audit and assess (and discipline and punish those not measuring up); only what could be counted, counted. Governments that praised “free markets” – the spontaneous emergence of economic order – actually ended up constructing entirely artificial “markets” in academia and healthcare. These pseudo-markets had to provide the right “incentives” – because, so the assumption went, professionals could not possibly be motivated by intrinsic goals of helping patients or pursuing research or educating young people.

This concerted attack on professionalism made it easier for Trump and Boris Johnson to claim that they might just know better than leading scientists

The result was not a genuine market, but a vast bureaucracy reminiscent of the late Soviet Union. What one historian has called “the tyranny of metrics” meant that the measure became the target; the relentless quantification of performance distorted what and how professionals performed. Enormous resources, and a fair bit of cunning, went into gaming a system which was based on the suspicion that professional self-regulation and internal accountability are sham ideals that just justify professionals erecting monopolies and closed shops.

This concerted attack on professionalism made it easier for Trump and Boris Johnson to claim that they might just know better than leading scientists. Business leaders are praised as more capable decision-makers, when it comes to the length of a lockdown, than epidemiologists. Trump – who apparently listens to theories cooked up by his uniquely unqualified son-in-law and fears being upstaged by Anthony Fauci – has still not understood that the longer amateur hour at the very top lasts, the more lives will be lost.

The Covid-19 crisis might lead us to a clear-eyed view of the value of professionalism (including professionals in politics like, say, Hillary Clinton). But it’s also important to keep professionalism in its place. Professional advice should constrain political choices, not determine them. Proper professionals, unlike technocrats, do not promise that they know the uniquely correct solution to all policy problems.

The assumption that there is only one right way is perversely shared by populists and technocrats: populists claim that there is only one authentic popular will (to build a Wall, get Brexit done, or what have you), and that they are the only ones who know it – and the only ones who can implement it. The technocratic stance – widely on display on the continent during the European debt crisis – holds that there is only one rational answer to policy challenges, and that only technocrats can identify it. If you disagree with a populist, you are declared a traitor to the people; if you disagree with a technocrat, you’ll be told politely that you’re not smart enough.

The lesson is not that professionalism should replace democratic politics, or, for that matter, widespread participation by citizens – a conclusion drawn by unashamedly elitist liberals who have sought to reinstate professional gatekeepers everywhere, but especially in primaries. Citizens still know best what their problems are; professionals – in perfectly non-condescending ways – play a crucial role in addressing them. Or, as John Dewey, the greatest American philosopher of democracy in the 20th century, put it, “no government by experts in which the masses do not have the chance to inform the experts as to their needs can be anything but an oligarchy managed in the interests of the few.”

  • Jan-Werner Müller teaches at Princeton. Democracy Rules is forthcoming