The Case For Expertise

Michael Gerson is a political conservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. He has also been a consistent “never Trumper.” He recently made the conservative case for Joe Biden, in a Washington Post column.

Gerson began by reciting some of the reasons conservatives should reject not just Donald J. Trump but the Republicans running with him, in order to crush the current iteration of the GOP.

Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, it is not enough for him to lose. He must lose in a fashion that constitutes repudiation. For the voter, this means that staying home on Election Day, or writing in Mitt Romney’s name, is not enough. She or he needs to vote in a manner that encourages a decisive Biden win. This theory also requires voting against all the elected Republicans who have enabled Trump (which is nearly all elected Republicans). A comprehensive Republican loss is the only way to hasten party reform. Those who love the GOP must (temporarily) leave it and ensure it is thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Gerson then moved to the positive reasons to support Joe Biden, and in doing so made a point that is far too often ignored. As he reminds readers, the restoration of our governing institutions  requires the knowledge and skills of an insider. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”

As readers of this blog know, I teach in a school of public affairs. We teach students who are planning to go into government the specialized “knowledge and skills” that they will need in such positions. Those skills differ from the skills imparted in the business school; they include everything from public budgeting to the important differences between the private, public and nonprofit sectors, to political philosophy, to constitutional ethics.

I am so over the facile assertion that success in business (and yes, I know Trump wasn’t successful) will easily translate into the ability to run a government agency or  administration. The job of a businessperson is to make a profit; the job of government is to serve the public good. People who do not understand that distinction–and the very different approaches that distinction requires– don’t belong in public positions.

Gerson makes another important point: the complexity of today’s government requires administrators who actually understand how it all works.

There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.

Gerson characterizes this election as a choice between an arsonist and an institutionalist, and points to the assets of the institutionalist. I agree, but I also understand that some fires are set accidentally. Trump is, of course, an intentional arsonist, but his monumental ignorance has also done incredible–often inadvertent– harm to our governing institutions.

During his embarrassing Town Hall on NBC,  Trump defended his re-tweet of a conspiracy theory, prompting Savannah Guthrie to remind him that he is President, not “someone’s crazy uncle.” But really, electing a President with absolutely no understanding of government, the constitution, checks and balances or the way public administration actually works has turned out to be pretty much the same thing as putting someone’s crazy uncle in charge.

Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.

 

How Did We Get Here?

Last Thursday, I participated in a (virtual) presentation for my university’s Senior Academy. The focus was upon the election, and since most of us are laser-focused on November 3d, I thought I’d share my remarks, which followed a colleague’s presentation on partisanship and political psychology.

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Like most of you, I’ve followed the ways in which partisanship and our incommensurate realities have affected our elections, but since 2016, I’ve been obsessed with a different question: How did we get here? What explains our current tribalism? What explains the 35 or 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump?

I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.

There’s growing awareness of several of those structural defects: both parties gerrymander, for example, although the Republicans are much better at it; the Electoral College, which has given us a President who lost the popular vote twice since 2000; the filibuster, which as currently used effectively requires a Senate super-majority to pass anything; and the dubious legality of a variety of thinly-veiled vote suppression tactics.

There are other systemic flaws that we are only beginning to recognize, especially the degree to which population movement and demographic change have turned the U.S. Senate into a massively unrepresentative body. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. As a result, fewer than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators.

Republicans currently hold a Senate majority while Senate Democrats  represent well over half of the American population.

Recently, Nate Silver sorted the country into four categories—or as he called them, “buckets”– those with fewer than 25,000 people living within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban.

Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent were rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

Silver then looked at the Senate, and found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has “two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. Silver says it’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. Rural residents also tend to be more Christian, more socially conservative and less tolerant of diversity than residents of urban areas. Don’t get me wrong; these folks deserve representation. But they don’t deserve wildly disproportionate representation.

When we connect the dots, we realize that the dominance of rural interests at both the state and federal level owes a lot to gerrymandering. Since rural folks tend to be Republican and urban areas these days are solidly Democratic, when Republicans draw the district maps—as they do in Indiana—they cut up urban areas and put the pieces in districts that are largely rural. It’s been estimated that for purposes of the Electoral College, each rural vote is worth 1 and a third of each urban vote.

This isn’t the way a small-d democratic republic is supposed to work.

One reason we’ve gotten to this point is because we’ve neglected civic education, and have ignored the importance of informed civic engagement.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although many don’t.)

Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.

We actually are fortunate that Donald Trump is so visibly incompetent and corrupt that even an electorate that is constitutionally-illiterate can see it. If the polls are right and the monumental turnout we are already seeing is as anti-Trump as it seems, we will have narrowly escaped an existential threat.

Still–over a third of the voting public is more concerned with protecting white privilege than repairing our democracy.

We have our work cut out for us.

Social Capital And Covid-19

Until I entered academic life, I was unfamiliar with the concept of social capital. Human capital is more easily understood; it refers to the skills and knowledge of a given individual. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the positive and negative qualities of networks, of our human connections to others.

There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital occurs within families, clans and associations such as churches and fraternal organizations, where members–those considered “one of us”–are nurtured and supported. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, fosters relationships between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals who benefit from the networks’ trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation.

The relationships that characterize  bonding social capital are sometimes referred to as thick, even tribal. The connections formed by bridging social capital are considered thinner, but given the increasing diversity of the American population, bridging social capital is critically important.

Scholarly and media attention to these connections within human societies has grown since the theories were first advanced in the mid-twentieth century, and I was intrigued by an August article in The New Yorker that investigated the connection between COVID-19 transmission and  bridging social capital. 

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

Evidently, the research showed that people in places who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague–but places with significant amounts of social trust– had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end.

Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

 As the author points out, social trust is “earned and banked” over many years of trustworthy governance.

In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded…. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction. Instead of converging on obvious truths—the limited but real values of mask-wearing, the confidence that quack cures won’t solve the problem, the necessity of vigilant watchfulness—we are told every day that all empirical arguments are merely, well, masks for clan rivalry.

The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.

Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust. The constant lies of the Trump Administration, the escalating propaganda of right-wing media sources and the dramatic upsurge in conspiracy theories have combined to dangerously erode our levels of public trust–and that trust is absolutely essential, not just to the effective control of a pandemic, but to all social functioning.

The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.

But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.

 

Dishonesty And Healthcare

As the blizzard of political television ads becomes ever more annoying–and less informative–one thing about them has become very interesting. Even Republicans who have previously made it clear that they don’t want government involved in healthcare are airing advertisements touting support for Medicare and willingness to protect pre-existing conditions.

I’ve been particularly struck by the U Turn in Indiana’s Fifth District, where a radically-reactionary, pro-Trump Republican noted for opposing “socialism” (which she has defined to include pretty much anything done by government) has begun running commercials supportive of Medicare and coverage of pre-existing conditions. Evidently, her polling has overcome her previously expressed belief that government should have no role in health care.

She’s not alone.

When the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) passed, several Republicans went on record with their concern that its trajectory would mirror that of Medicare and Medicaid: despite initial resistance, the public would come to expect/demand/approve of the program. Survey research has confirmed those fears, which is why GOP officeholders continue to pretend that they will protect access to healthcare at the same time as they are feverishly working to eviscerate it.

The Brookings Institution recently published a report detailing six ways Trump has sabotaged the ACA.The report began by stressing that its authors did not use the term “sabotage” lightly.

For analytic purposes, the term “sabotage,” should not be used lightly. Presidents upon taking office typically have priorities that trigger executive actions strengthening some programs while weakening others. The losing programs often face resource reductions, pressure to deemphasize certain goals, directives to alter their administrative approaches, and other measures that can undermine their effectiveness. In doing so, a president often pays lip service to the program, claiming it has been “modernized” or otherwise improved. In contrast, Webster’s defines “sabotage” as efforts to foster “destruction and obstruction” and to “cause the failure of something.” In the context of the administrative presidency, it reflects a commitment to program emasculation and termination through executive action. As such, it sharply departs from the constitutional requirement that the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

There were six actions detailed in the report.

1) The administration dramatically reduced outreach about, and opportunities for enrollment in, the ACA’s insurance exchanges. The administration sharply reduced support for advertising and exchange navigators and reduced the annual enrollment period to about half the number of days. 

2) Together with Congressional Republicans, it reneged on commitments to private insurance companies. Those insurers had been offered various subsidies that reduced the risks of participating in the exchanges. The GOP failed to honor those commitments.

3) The administration has constructed what the report calls “off-ramps to cheaper, lower-quality insurance.” One goal of the ACA was to improve the quality of health insurance by specifying essential benefits, guaranteeing coverage of those with preexisting conditions at reasonable rates, and prohibiting insurers from imposing certain spending caps. The Trump administration expanded access to coverage that was cheaper because it didn’t meet these standards and that siphoned off the healthier enrollees whose participation is needed to make the ACA work.

4) It allowed–indeed, promoted– a variety of state waivers that decreased ACA enrollments and undermined its regulatory structure.

5) It discouraged legal “aliens” from enrolling in Medicaid. In a particularly evil move, Homeland Security promulgated a “public charge” rule authorizing officials to treat Medicaid enrollment as a negative factor when reviewing the requests of legal non-citizens to extend their stays or change their status (e.g., from temporary to permanent resident).

6) And then there’s the existential threat. The Trump Administration brought the lawsuit that is now pending at the Supreme Court, attacking the constitutionality of the ACA. If that suit is successful–despite a legal argument that has been widely characterized as ridiculous, despite its endorsement by an appellate court composed of Trump-appointed judges– millions of Americans will lose access to health care.

As a student once reminded me, the United States doesn’t have a health-care system; we have a health-care industry. As a result, millions of Americans remain underinsured or completely uninsured, other millions are bankrupted each year by medical costs, and our health outcomes are among the absolute worst in the developed world. 

Deeply dishonest political rhetoric to the contrary, the current Republican Party wants to keep it that way.

About that 40%…

The problem isn’t Trump. As numerous people have recognized, Trump–despicable and dangerous and deranged as he is– is the symptom, not the disease.

I’ve previously posted about the systemic and structural fault-lines that have been exploited by Trump’s GOP supporters and fellow-travelers–but the disease, the root problem, isn’t the systems. It’s those supporters. Polls suggest that some 40% of Americans fall into that category, and the recurring, haunting question is: why? How could any sane adult look at this man and say, yep, that’s the guy I want directing my government? That’s the role model I want my kids to emulate?

Actually, I think my manicurist answered that question during a recent appointment.

She’s an adorable young woman (and very “woke” as the current terminology would have it). We were discussing the election, and she shared her distress that several family members were Trump supporters. I asked the question I always ask: why? What was her impression/ best guess about the basis of that support? She thought for a moment, then said “I hate to say this, but I think they are sort of racist, and Trump gives them permission to feel that way.”

Her anecdotal suspicions continue to be confirmed by the research, some of which I’ve referenced in prior posts. As more studies emerge, the evidence continues to grow.

The Washington Post recently reported on research into the authoritarian proclivities of Trump supporters–research that  linked those tendencies to racial animus.

In “Authoritarian Nightmare,” Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean marshal data from a previously unpublished nationwide survey showing a striking desire for strong authoritarian leadership among Republican voters.

They also find shockingly high levels of anti-democratic beliefs and prejudicial attitudes among Trump backers, especially those who support the president strongly. And regardless of what happens in 2020, the authors say, Trump supporters will be a potent pro-authoritarian voting bloc in the years to come.

The research paints a picture of  people who are “submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life’s threats.” They are particularly prone to divide the world into friends and foes, and to believe that the foes far outnumber the friends.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions using very different methods. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, for instance, recently used YouGov survey data to find that many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes.

In the most recent study, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Roughly half of Trump supporters agreed with that statement,  which–as Altemeyer and Dean point out– is “practically a Nazi cheer.”

If there has been one overarching lesson to be learned from the past few years, it is the (previously unappreciated) extent to which tribalism, racism and bigotry explain things that are otherwise inexplicable. A recent essay from New York Magazine analyzed the failure of Congress and the President to agree on a second, desperately needed stimulus package. The author’s conclusion was stunning: “bailing out” blue states would benefit ethnic minorities–something Republicans are loathe to do.

The most plausible explanation for this state of affairs is this: Most Senate Republicans face no great risk of losing their seats to a Democrat this year or any other. For them, the main threat to their power is a primary challenge. And right now, conservative media has turned opposition to fiscal aid into a cause célèbre, casting support for “blue-state bailouts” as treasonous.

How hateful do you have to be to withhold aid during a global pandemic to people you see as “Other”–even if by doing so, you and those you view as your own kind are harmed as well?

Even if there is a blue tsunami on November 3d, the people who hold these attitudes will still constitute a troubling percentage of the electorate. We can only hope that they fall far short of a majority.

And I have to wonder: What the hell is wrong with them?