The People v. Expert Authority

Scott McLemee interviews the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.

September 28, 2018

The expression “low-information voter” always amounts to tacit self-flattery. Everyone using it implicitly exempts themselves. But almost a century has passed since Walter Lippmann denounced “the myth of the omnicompetent citizen,” and the problems facing any electorate have in the meantime kept on growing in scale, variety and complexity. Everyone is a low-information voter, given the circumstances, and Lippmann concluded that the best arrangement would be one in which debates over policy would go on among experts, with most of the population being spectators most of the time. In other words: democracy in form, technocratic meritocracy in content.

That sounds very much like what Salvatore Babones, an associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, understands to have been the status quo of the world’s industrialized democratic states until shaken up by the recent development he discusses in The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts (Polity). The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency are among the disruptions he characterizes as flowing from a populist “strategy of desperation, pursued by people who have been excluded from the political debate” in order to challenge “the authority of experts to determine the boundaries of legitimate political discourse.”

From the author’s vantage point, it’s Trump who counts as the real antiauthoritarian. Furthermore, opposition to him flows from “the hatred of people” -- experts -- “who feel their position in society has been undermined.”

Like interpreting the behavior of the Titanic’s passengers as expressing anxiety at their evening wear being ruined, this assessment strikes me as neither completely wrong nor remotely adequate. In any event, the book provoked me enough to ask the author to respond to some questions for this column. A transcript of our email interview follows.

Q: Your book has no apparatus: no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography. Most of your conceptual categories are presented as givens, easily recognizable and widely understood. But the definitions of terms like "conservative," "liberal" and "populist" come up for heated debate even in common usage. Doesn't that risk -- even invite -- misunderstanding?

A: The New Authoritarianism is a political warning, not an academic monograph. When experts engage with each other, they fight with footnotes. But when they engage with the wider public, as in a newspaper or magazine, they have a responsibility to make their cases on plain terms using widely accessible facts. If you look at a serious intellectual magazine like The New Republic or The National Interest, you won't find footnotes, either. That's because arguments in the public sphere must stand or fall on their own merits, not on the authority of that amorphous thing we academics call "the literature." When I accuse the expert class of authoritarianism, I accuse them using terms that any politically minded reader can understand and data that any curious reader can access. Academics who tell the public what to believe based on the authority of the academic literature are guilty of exactly the "new authoritarianism" I am warning against.

Q: The "new authoritarianism" you identify seems driven -- somewhat paradoxically -- by an increase in the number of things defined as rights, as well as an extension of the range of those who can claim them. Would you please expound on this a bit?

A: The "new authoritarianism" of my title is the authoritarianism of the expert class. Ironically, this new authoritarianism is also the original authoritarianism. The very words "authoritarian" and "authoritarianism" were coined by American spiritualists in the 1860s to deride mainstream religions that expected believers to follow the authoritative teachings of church leaders. The terms were first applied to politics in the 1880s by American anarchists railing against government attempts to legislate morality. In short, they were used by American outsiders to criticize the American establishment. Only after World War I were they picked up by political scientists and applied to foreign countries, beginning with Germany.

The etymology of "authoritarian" as a derivative of "authority" is the key to understanding the term. The authoritarianism of experts is particularly strong in those areas where they claim a unique authority to make policy without reference to -- and even in defiance of -- the popular will. Human rights law is the ultimate example of this. Simple 18th-century rights like "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" (First Amendment) and "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" (Second Amendment) are easily grasped (if endlessly discussed). Anyone can claim to interpret them. Twentieth-century rights like a woman's right to an abortion or a refugee's right to asylum are much more abstract and highly contingent on expert judgment and even adjudication. As more and more rights are granted by expert judgment rather than gained by political struggle, liberalism advances at the expense of democracy. Reliance on expert authority may yield better policies than referral to the electorate, but only the most artful sophistry of political philosophers can portray it as more democratic.

Q: Your attitude toward Brexit and Trump might be called anticatastrophistic -- a matter of seeing them as the results of normal electoral procedures, rather than as signs of the apocalypse. So are you thinking in terms of swings of the pendulum or long-term cycles?

A: After nearly two years in office, the Trump administration has shown itself disorderly but effective. I may not agree with all of Trump's policies, but they have been generally in line with his election program and have sparked neither economic collapse nor foreign war. That's a record our last several presidents might envy. As for Brexit, my own expert opinion -- and on this topic I have written for both academic and popular audiences -- is that the potential economic risks have been wildly exaggerated, and the biggest challenge is the social challenge of the Irish border. Both Trump and Brexit are signs of underlying structural change, but to my mind that change is for the better. It represents the return of politics. Experts often demand that we should not "politicize" public policy debates, but democracy is all about taking those debates into the sphere of politics -- taking them to the people.

Q: Nativism, you maintain, is "in effect racist in those nations that construct their identities in racial terms" -- which “multiracial America,” you say, does not: "African Americans face severe racial discrimination, but this is not tied to an assertion of their nonmembership in the body politic." Ergo, Trump's nativism is not, as such, racist. Doesn't the fact that Trump came into his own as a political figure by promoting the belief that Obama was not a citizen (hence illegitimate as president) suggest otherwise?

A: I do not know whether or not Donald Trump is or ever was, in his heart of hearts, a racist. As a sociologist, I teach my students that we are all -- all of us -- racist, and that we should all work hard to combat our racist inclinations. But nativism as the explicit promotion of a system of government preferences in favor of the existing citizens of one's own country is not racism. It is at the very core of citizenship. In countries that construe their citizenship on ethnic lines, nativism is almost inevitably intermingled with racism. For example, most European Union countries give immigration preferences to the descendants of emigrants in their national diasporas. Those policies are essentially racist in operation, whatever their intention, because people who left Europe a century ago are almost all white. The United States has no such policies. As for the "birther" controversy, my guess is that Donald Trump would have gone after Obama even if his father had been Russian and he had spent part of his childhood in Germany. Many racists dislike Barack Obama, but the "birther" movement is not especially about race. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, no one questioned his citizenship.

Q: Calling nativism "an illiberal political philosophy that espouses the prioritization of the needs and preferences of the existing citizens of a country over the needs and preferences of prospective future citizens and of the outside world in general,” you say that it has “its benign aspect,” in that "the prioritization of the wants and needs of the members of a particular political community over those of nonmembers" is "the very foundation of popular sovereignty." I'm drawing a blank on examples from the historical record of nativist movements that did not mobilize a significant degree of hatred, paranoia or thuggery. What would you point to as a case of espousing “the prioritization of the needs and preferences of the existing citizens of a country” without malice?

A: There is a long tradition of nativism in American politics. The much-mythologized progressive movement of the 1890s was thoroughly nativist. No doubt, it was also racist; nearly all major political movements were racist in the 19th century. Even the abolitionists were, for the most part, racists. The point is that nativism and racism are different things, even if many nativists are racists (and vice versa). The Brexit movement in the U.K. was clearly nativist, but that doesn't make it racist. If anything, the European Union that Britain is separating from is more "white" than the U.K. that is leaving it. Nor are Donald Trump's national security tariffs motivated by a racial hatred of Chinese people -- any more than his NATO skepticism is motivated by a racial hatred of Europeans. Both are nativist policies that are plainly and honestly summarized in his "America first" rhetoric.

Q: Any sense of how to tell when the course correction is nearing completion? Or could it go on for a while, deepening and intensifying?

A: The structural change that led to the election of Donald Trump is only half complete. While the Republican Party establishment ultimately failed in its attempts to quash Trump's candidacy, the Democratic Party establishment succeeded in quashing that of Bernie Sanders. When both major parties reform their internal procedures to provide a level playing field on which all candidates can compete fairly without prejudice or favoritism on the part of the party leadership, the structural shift will be complete. The Democratic Party in particular must get rid of the "superdelegate" system that stacks their convention in favor of the party hierarchy. My 2016 dream election would have been Trump versus Sanders, and I'm not alone in that. And I'm not alone in thinking that Sanders would have won.


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