As people search desperately for good news, one aspect of the response should provoke cautious optimism: These previously unthinkable and widely supported measures have come about in direct response to medical and scientific experts, largely from within the government.
Our willing compliance with scientific consensus is important because faith in experts has been lacking in the United States for decades. Modern political culture has been overwhelmed by skepticism toward government expertise. While ideals about bootstrapping and rugged independence have always shaped American attitudes toward experts and elites, today’s cynicism is a specific result of changes to American institutions, politics and public life in the past 50 years. If we stand a chance at crafting a better world in the aftermath of this pandemic, we should start by understanding how Americans came to distrust experts — and why they’ve taken a different course in recent weeks.
During and after World War II, confidence in major institutions and their elite leaders was high. Americans trusted a government that had helped navigate the rough shoals of the Great Depression and World War II, while enacting popular programs like Social Security.
In the post-war period, the federal government developed into what historian Brian Balogh calls the “proministrative state,” a large bureaucracy managed and led by professionals. From the 1950s through the 1970s, legislators and presidents used that bureaucracy to tackle a growing body of concerns, from pollution and automobile safety to public health and welfare. And they achieved powerful results. For example, the Clean Air Act Amendments, passed in 1970 and managed by the new Environmental Protection Agency, reduced some automotive air pollution emissions by more than 90 percent.
Importantly, the proministrative state blossomed at a time of widespread public support for big institutions and their leaders. Even as late as 1966, amid discord over civil rights and an incipient anti-Vietnam War movement, more than 70 percent of respondents to a Harris Poll said they had “a great deal of confidence” in the leaders of the medical community. More than 60 percent held such a view of educational and military leaders, and 55 percent trusted the heads of major corporations.
But as the proministrative state expanded, its critics grew louder. Intellectuals led the charge. Many seized on earlier writings by Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, who argued that bureaucracy was stultifying, killing innovation and entrepreneurship. By the 1960s, public intellectuals such as Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan began warning of a “New Class” of experts, pencil-pushers and weenies who had no respect or allegiance to ordinary citizens and only looked to advance their own interests.
That anti-elitism found unlikely allies among right-wing populists like Alabama’s George Wallace, who railed against “pointy-headed intellectuals” and “brief-case toting bureaucrats.” Religious traditionalists likewise disdained expertise as sign of heretical modernity that threatened their core values. On the left, the military debacle in Southeast Asia, led by the “best and brightest” minds of the Johnson Administration, bolstered the case against government experts.
If social unrest in the late 1960s eroded public trust, the 1970s sealed the deal. Watergate, Vietnam, the Middle East, oil and energy, stagflation, hostages — the nonstop parade of overlapping and intersecting crises, and government’s seeming inability to solve any of them, battered what remained of Americans’ faith in major social institutions and the officials who ran them. By the end of the decade, Harris recorded that only 32 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in medical leaders; 20 percent in religious leaders; 18 percent in corporate leaders.
Academics also played key roles stoking suspicion of bureaucracy. The left-leaning field of science and technology studies (STS) — which arose from critiques of nuclear power, feminist interrogations of technoscience and other skeptical movements — argued that expertise was a “social construct.” Some STS scholars went further, asserting we should put renewed faith in democracy and the choices of ordinary citizens and oppose technocracy, or rule by experts. Broader intellectual movements, often under the label “postmodernism,” questioned whether singular truth even existed and whether experts possessed it.
Ironically, given the left-leaning roots of this critique, it was politicians on the right, especially Ronald Reagan, who most aggressively pushed this anti-expert trend. In radio commentaries recorded from 1975 to 1979, the once and future presidential candidate repeatedly took aim at government employees interfering in citizens’ private lives. In an episode on automobile regulation, Reagan told listeners, “The Generals in the war against the automobile are a ‘New Class’ of intellectuals, journalists, burocrats [sic], and academics who are anti-materialist and opposed to the basic values of American society.
Ascending to the presidency in 1981, Reagan kept his rhetorical war on expertise alive, particularly against those regulators, inspectors and researchers in public service. According to one of his favorite jokes: “The nine most frightening words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I'm here to help.’”
Since the Reagan years, low economic growth and an increasingly polarized electorate have conspired to keep faith in both government and expertise low. The consequences of this cynicism have been severe. Reagan’s legacy of demeaning government expertise came home to roost as the vital problem of climate change grew increasingly partisan. When the Environmental Protection Agency put out a report in 2002 supporting the idea of anthropogenic climate change, George W. Bush told reporters, “I read the report put out by the bureaucracy.” And in 2018, only 40 percent of conservative Republicans believed climate change was real. Even fewer, 26 percent, believed humans have caused it.
From the anti-vaxx movement to trutherism conspiracies, distrust continues to animate modern political culture. Donald Trump’s rants about the “deep state” and the need to “drain the swamp” struck a chord with many of his voters — as well as many who voted against him — not because they were novel, but because they drew on a 50-year attack on expertise.
Given this history, it is remarkable that so many Americans have been so quick not only to believe the experts about the risks of the novel coronavirus, but also to take extreme action. After first dismissing the pandemic as a “hoax” designed to besmirch the president, even Fox News and sister station Fox Business (though not all of the networks’ opinion hosts) are taking it seriously. Last week, Fox Business and TV personality Trish Regan, who had called the virus an “impeachment scam," agreed to part ways, after the network abruptly pulled Regan’s show from its lineup.
To be sure, deep-seated distrust of expertise is still rampant, including among many recalcitrant leaders, particularly in states that have not yet experienced the brunt of coronavirus but will. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, for example, apparently only learned this week what experts have for at least a month: that the virus is highly contagious before the infected display symptoms. Yet in the main, it appears that many rank and file Republicans are sheltering in their homes like their Democratic counterparts.
The coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented response will test the mettle of this nation in myriad ways. If experts fail or we fail to heed them, we risk compounding 50 years of cynical, anti-establishment politics, perhaps beyond recovery. But this catastrophic experience could also become a moment when we learn the vital lesson of this history and renew our confidence in medical and scientific experts, especially those who deploy their lifesaving skills as public employees. We have the opportunity to realize, in other words, that in the present crisis, government — and government experts — are the solution to our problem.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece listed Trish Regan as Trish Reagan and noted that she was fired from Fox News. In reality, Regan’s show aired on Fox Business, and she and the network mutual agreed on her departure. Her show was abruptly removed from the air in March after she made controversial comments about the coronavirus pandemic.