A general rule in policymaking is that expertise is a significant resource. When I served in the government, if two agencies went into a meeting with different preferences but one of them demonstrated superior knowledge about the situation, that agency usually won out.

Stepping back, another rule of policymaking is that the federal government in general and the executive branch in particular has a decided advantage in expertise. There are very smart people in universities and think tanks, but the federal government has a vast array of institutional memory, staff, in-house think tanks, and procured research to bring to the table. In many policy disputes, the government should be able to bring the most expertise to the table. This does not mean that they are always right, mind you, but it is a traditional advantage of theirs.

What is so interesting about Trump administration officials is how they have rejected that advantage wholesale. Part of it is due to a populist campaign that identified itself in opposition to educated elites. The administration’s failure to plan out policy is beginning to trigger downward revisions in growth estimates, however. Whatever the tactical value to the administration of bashing experts, this would seem costly.

The denigration of expertise goes beyond Trump’s campaign to include the whole of the GOP. Consider that the congressional wing of the GOP has waged a jihad on the Congressional Budget Office. Despite the pleas of previous CBO heads to stop attacking the office because of its scoring of Obamacare replacements, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus supports an amendment designed to gut the CBO staff and render it an aggregator of think tank projections.

So what’s going on here? There are two ways of thinking about it. The first is that this is an example of this administration’s impressive streak of own-goals when it comes to governing. As Philip Rocco noted at the Monkey Cage yesterday:

At the center of the Trump White House’s difficulties has been its own inexperience with the complex web of statutes, organizations and procedures that constitute contemporary American government. Trump’s aversion to the details of dealmaking means that even if congressional Republicans manage to pass a plan to repeal, replace, repair or revise Obamacare, it will be despite — not because of — help from the presidency.

Indeed, one has to be impressed at the way that the GOP efforts to scuttle Obamacare have been so ham-handed and so universally loathed by experts that the result has been to push American public opinion to the left. As New York’s Benjamin Hart noted:

By thus far rejecting any reasonable fixes to the law, the GOP has inadvertently helped drag the American public to the left. A recent Pew survey found that 60 percent of Americans now believe that government has a responsibility to ensure health care for its citizens, the highest number in a decade. That includes 52 percent of Republicans with family incomes below $30,000, up from 31 percent a year ago.
Propaganda works best when the enemy it conjures is hazy and easily caricatured; it works less well when everyday reality intrudes. Americans have now gotten a taste of what citizens in other industrialized nations have long become accustomed to, and they don’t want less of it. They want more.

So in the short term, this all seems very foolish. But as I argued in “The Ideas Industry,” a surefire way to weaken the power of experts over an issue is to make it a question of partisan politics. If a party can successfully make the case that a policy dispute is really a question about ideology, then it allows partisans to simply follow their cues and ignore any consensus of experts.

Rocco makes the case that Republicans are essentially doing this across every policy issue that is relevant to the executive branch:

It would be a mistake to evaluate Trump’s effectiveness on the basis of legislative failures alone. Whereas other presidents have used policy overhaul — prepared by experts — to change politics, Trump is using the presidency to generate political conflict and to undermine the cadre of policy experts who make government work. …
American presidents doubt or look to sideline inconvenient experts all the time. Yet Trump is going considerably further, by politicizing even very basic truth claims and looking to use his opponents’ reliance on expertise against them. It is possible that this will pay short-term political dividends, but it is likely over the longer run to have a corrosive impact on the basic structures of knowledge that government needs to do its work well.

Will this work? There is no denying that it has a chance in an environment where expertise is devalued, polarization is high and trust in institutions is low. One could argue that the emerging polarization toward higher education also reflects this trend. On issues where the American public does not immediately feel the effects of bad policy — foreign affairs or climate change, for example — the denigration of experts could work. The cost of bucking expert opinion might be muted.

The wider war on expertise could prove a Pyrrhic one, however. These tactics might yield results with GOP partisans but they do not seem to work on anyone else. Indeed, on issue areas where the real-world consequences are apparent, they are not working at all. Poll after poll after poll shows that the GOP health-care plans are incredibly unpopular. And all of this is taking place during a reasonably healthy economy and no Katrina-like moment. If the economy stumbles or if the administration fumbles a crisis or a disaster, then I suspect America will be ready to make experts great again.

The basic question is whether the trends discussed in “The Ideas Industry” will persist or reverse course. And I think that, weirdly, the Trump administration is so incompetent that it will cause voters to spurn its know-nothing style.

I confess to being less confident about this outcome than I would have been in 2016 or 2015. But I am still pretty confident.