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Who made you an expert? Is America's distrust of 'elites' becoming more toxic?

Why We Wrote This

America’s willingness to overlook credentials – to think anyone can do anything – has been a unique element of its exceptional success. But political polarization is turning it into something toxic.

Chris Urso/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Supporters of President Trump yell at CNN reporter Jim Acosta on July 31, at the State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Fla., prior to an appearance by the president.

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There’s an American tradition of looking side-eye at those with pedigreed résumés. It’s sort of a baked-in emphasis on self-reliance and “rugged individualism” in the American character, scholars say, and it’s played a role in a number of populist movements since the nation’s founding. As President Lyndon Johnson once put it, “self-styled intellectuals ... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” But as Americans have become more politically polarized, this emphasis on self-reliance has morphed into more than a tradition of anti-intellectual shade. More Americans see an existential threat in those with different views. “What I think we see going on now, is an attack on experts as individuals, as people – demonizing those experts who disagree with our ideological viewpoints, and denigrating their professionalism,” says Matt Motta, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, President Trump has challenged the professionalism of the highest rungs of US law enforcement – not only “angry Democrats” but also long-respected Republicans with sterling reputations and impeccable résumés, like special counsel Robert Mueller and even the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. Asheley Landrum, a professor of science communication at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says, “The more that influential people give us a reason to mistrust one another, the more distrusting we get, and the more cynical we become of other people’s motives.”

There’s a not-so-subtle side-eye tradition in America when it comes to its credentialed elites.  

The muckety-mucks who make a mess of things, the “pointy-headed college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight,” the Ivy-educated class of experts and government bureaucrats who pull the levers of power from afar.

It often stands hand-in-hand with a reciprocal tradition of heroism for the self-made man who, armed with instinct, self-reliance, and force of will, forgoes the Ivy towers and makes a fortune through a more native creativity, unrestrained and unadulterated.

“I think it’s almost baked into the American character,” says Wendy Rahn, a professor of political science the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, noting that historians have long traced a mindset of social egalitarianism that distinguished Americans from European distinctions based on birth and class.

“So to the extent that ‘experts’ are seen as violating that normative order, I think that there’s always been a suspicion that ‘they don't live in the real world,’ ” continues Professor Rahn, an expert in populist movements. “‘We have experience and common sense’ – some elite with education and credentials who claims to know more than we do has never sat very well with people.”

While this tradition of looking askance at those with pedigreed résumés has also stood behind many and various populist movements in American history, scholars say, it has begun to morph into more than angry glares. Instead of a baked-in emphasis on self-reliance and “rugged individualism,” more and more Americans see an existential threat in the political other’s corrupt character and way of seeing the world. 

Indeed, many of the populist appeals President Trump tweets out to his followers fall into patterns seen even before the nation’s founding, scholars say. Suspicion of experts is “a long-lasting American tradition,” says Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And I think there’s also a long-lasting American tradition to ride that politically.”

In the 1952 presidential race, Dwight Eisenhower accused his opponent Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, of using “aristocratic explanations in Harvard words.” President Lyndon Johnson said “self-styled intellectuals ... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” Spiro Agnew, vice president during the Nixon administration, called the press “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

“But I think that the backlash against experts that we see today is different,” says Matt Motta, a postdoctoral fellow studying the politics of science communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Both sides still tend to appeal to experts when it’s convenient for them, when the experts agree with what they have to say.”

“But then, what I think we see going on now, is an attack on experts as individuals, as people – demonizing those experts who disagree with our ideological viewpoints, and denigrating their professionalism,” Dr. Motta says.

Mr. Trump’s outsider presidency itself can be seen as a manifestation of this anti-elite strain. And the president has fed it: Not just an effete corps of snobs, Mr. Trump now calls reporters the “enemy of the people.” The president has also challenged the professionalism of the highest rungs of US law enforcement – affixing the title of “angry Democrats” to Republicans with sterling reputations and impeccable résumés. These include the special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush. The Mexican ancestry of a judge born in Indiana and presiding over a class-action lawsuit involving one of his companies, Trump said, itself made the judge biased against him.

“The more that influential people give us a reason to mistrust one another, the more distrusting we get, and the more cynical we become of other people’s motives,” says Asheley Landrum, a professor of science communication at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Not only does this tear at the national fabric, it also casually ignores that, in fact, the role of experts is essential. “We do have to operate in a society that has a division of cognitive labor, where we have experts, and we need to rely on one another because we don’t have the time or resources to be experts in everything,” Professor Landrum says.

Still, America’s general distrust of elites, many historians say, is nevertheless part of a tradition of independence and individualism that many believe has made the country “exceptional.” It unmoors individuals from hoary traditions, and along with a “history is bunk” mindset, a spirit of self-reliance with an emphasis on experience enables a free-wheeling creativity, especially in industry and technology, yielding accomplishments rarely matched during the past two centuries.

“But I guess the thing that worries me is just how much more politicized every aspect of American life has become from university life to the press and even athletics,” says Rahn. “That to me is more fundamental than kind of the populism that’s landed on top of it, and that’s a much more difficult tide to turn back.”

From climate change to GMOs

In the realm of science, too, traditional skepticism toward experts has also fueled vexing polarization. For those like Motta who trace American attitudes toward science and scientific consensus, the most glaring manifestation of distrust remains attitudes toward climate change on the right. 

“But one of the things that I often tell people is that it’s important to recognize that while the distrust of scientists and while the rejection of scientific consensus is more common on the ideological right, it exists on the ideological left as well,” says Motta. “It is less common, but there are certain issues on which liberals look a lot like conservatives in their rejection of science and scientific expertise.”

For example, the issue of genetically modified organisms has long galvanized widespread opposition from left-wing groups. But like climate change, there is a broad scientific consensus among researchers: There is no factual evidence that GMOs present any risks to health.  

“For some of the most anti-GMO activists, however, it’s more ideological,” says Rahn. “It’s more anti-corporate, anti-global capitalism, but I think for ordinary people, it’s mostly just not understanding what technology is all about and the fact that it’s food – it seems impure somehow.”

Political polarization has transformed a general distrust of experts into various kinds of conspiracy theories. Opponents of both climate change and GMOs often point to funding sources, whether from industry sources or the government, and question the integrity and professionalism of researchers, suggesting they provide the findings they’re essentially paid to report.  

“There are a lot of people out there who hold low levels of trust of a lot of different political institutions and related institutions,” says Motta. “And we know that these people tend to be more prone to conspiratorial thinking, and are more likely to latch onto conspiracy theories and to not trust information coming from the government.” 

Beyond American individualism

There are exceptions: So far, distrust of professional expertise has not extended to certain professions, such as commercial pilot, astronaut, and structural and nuclear engineers.

“Now in people’s practical lives, people rely on having doctors who really are credentialed experts, and they turn to lawyers when they need lawyers,” says Professor Fischer. “Still, this theme that anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s opinion is, I think, very deep in American society.”

“But the extent to which Trump and Trump-like speakers call on things like the defense of white Christian identity, they’re operating on what you might say is a different part of the American musical score – I mean, this is a different set of issues than just being expressions of American individualism,” he says, referring to the country's cultural battles over race, religion, and sexuality.

In fact, the current emphasis on race and immigration in the current populist movement is hardly a celebration of rugged individualism, championed especially by conservative libertarians. “If you’re a true libertarian, the fact that you’re born in this country or not born in this country, the fact that you’re white or you’re black, you speak English or you don’t speak English, is supposed to be irrelevant,” says Fischer. “It’s your performance in a sort of open market of competition that’s supposed to be the only thing that’s supposed to matter.”

The irony of the growing cynicism and and even demonization of credentialed elites, says Landrum, is the fact that in a world getting exponentially more complex, people necessarily have to rely on experts.  

“I think that a lot of this populism that we see now is some of that cynicism starting to take hold,” she says. “And trust is somewhat fragile in our institutions, in our authorities.”

“Americans do have this sort of special historical rebel attitude, or this idea of independence on the frontier where, we can do most things ourselves – you know, a local reliance, a self-reliance, an American kind of individualism,” Landrum continues, especially in her home state of Texas. “But we still have the problem of not having the time or ability to do it on our own. We have to rely on each other – we don’t have the time or mental resources to know everything.”

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