Voters aren’t stupid. The world is just complex. Our society has gone far away from the days when we were expected to collect our own food from a foodshed that was walkable in under an hour. We are a society of specialists, but being a specialist doesn’t make one stupid. Rather, being specialists makes us better at the things we do than we are at the things we don’t do.
So we substitute trust relationships for wide but shallow expertise. If I’m sick, I see a doctor. These days, that’s often a specialist, an even more specialized job than merely being a doctor. We converse, and I ask questions. I will make the final call on the treatment plan, but I don’t have the expertise to know if it’s the right plan. I didn’t go to medical school, but presumably my doctor did. I have to trust that the information I get from my doctor is accurate. If my doctor has a hidden agenda, I can easily be talked into treatment plans that would benefit my doctor at my expense. I also must work to keep an open mind in that conversation, because whatever biases I bring into the conversation will impact my decision, possibly to my detriment.
Our representatives in government are necessarily political specialists. Many of them are also specialists in other fields. For instance, I know of a nearby school board president who is also a highly specialized structural engineer. If you need to know anything having to do with his particular engineering specialization, this is the man to see. So we have a government made up of political specialists, mixed with a somewhat random smattering of other specializations.
But we ask these representatives to vote on issues in areas in which they are not specialists. They have a few choices to make at that point. They can vote however the party leadership tells them to vote (thus getting advice solely from political specialists). They can vote however polls from their constituents dictate, or based on communications from their constituents (thus getting advice from the “hive,” or the most motivated members of the “hive”). Or they can seek out advice from specialists in the fields impacted by the legislation and vote based on the advice they get from those specialists.
Specialists are necessary for an ever-increasing percentage of voting issues, for precisely the same reason that specialists have become necessary in an ever increasing percentage of our daily life decisions. For this reason, we should be encouraging our representatives to seek out advice from specialists in ever more areas. We, as voters, should be doing the same.
But an odd thing has been happening with increasing frequency and intensity over the past decade. There is a growing backlash from the right against specialists. Why is this?
I suggest it’s because many people feel that both specialists and liberals are calling voters stupid. Sometimes it’s overt. The upshot is that the message of “it’s a really complicated issue” has become synonymous in many voters’ minds with “you’re too stupid to understand.” This fosters resentment of the specialists.
Let’s face it, if you went to a doctor and he told you “you’re too stupid to understand the treatment I’m prescribing; just do it,” you’d probably start looking for another doctor. If you went to a lawyer, and he told you “you’re too stupid to understand the law, so just accept this plea bargain,” you’d want a different lawyer. So it should come as no surprise that the same thing is happening in politics.
Global warming is complicated. Most of us are insufficiently educated to understand the entire mechanism. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid, but it does mean we are forced to trust specialists.
Keynesian economic policy is complicated. Most of us are insufficiently educated to understand the entire mechanism. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid, but it does mean we are forced to trust specialists.
Health care today is complicated. Most of us are insufficiently educated to understand the entire mechanism. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid, but it does mean we are forced to trust specialists.
See a pattern?
So what happens when you start attacking the very notion of field specialists? You’re forced to devolve. If you conclude that you cannot trust doctors, then you self-treat, and you’re devolving to health care of a couple centuries ago. If you conclude that you cannot trust economists, then you make poor economic decisions, and you’re devolving to an economy of a couple centuries ago. If you conclude that you cannot trust scientists, then you make poor science decisions, and you’re devolving to technology of a couple centuries ago.
Voters on the right are particularly well primed to accept the attacks on the notion of field specialists. With every passing year, more and more are hearing the message that the left thinks they’re too stupid. Why on earth would you vote for or with people who think you’re too stupid to make decisions? So when the Republican party started focusing on that message, beginning with Sarah Palin’s aw-shucks I’m-just-a-regular-guy persona attacking the “elites” (i.e., specialists who make you feel dumb), there was an audience ready to respond.
It’s a very shrewd strategy to win votes. But it’s horribly destructive to a trust relationship that builds up over the course of a century. It takes less time and energy to destroy a trust relationship than to build one, which makes this strategy doubly destructive.
When you undermine trust in field specialists, you necessarily destroy the foundation of our modern economy. It is exactly the strategy that the Taliban used, albeit with different justification. But Afghanistan is a 19th century economy, so it didn’t really cause devolution there. Afghanistan has little to offer the rest of the world besides minerals and agricultural products (opiates being the most profitable of them).
This isn’t all Palin’s fault. She was the spark, but many liberals lay the kindling over a long time. How often have we heard liberals calling conservatives, rural people, and voters in general stupid? I’ve seen it on this very site. It’s condescending, and it should come as no surprise that it’s a major turnoff to the recipients of the condescension.
I don’t have a good solution for this. But the path we’re on scares the hell out of me. I don’t want to live in a place where specialists are distrusted simply for being specialists.
What do you think?