There is an insidious tide sweeping over public discourse in the United States, the current of which was stimulated long ago and now, when we are at our most vulnerable, is crashing mercilessly upon us. This issue was described by Isaac Asimov is his 1980 essay, “The Cult of Ignorance”:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’
While one might not go so far as to call today’s movement a cult, we can readily see that within our body politic today there is an open hostility to expertise. Factual conclusions drawn by credentialed and experienced experts are no longer met with respect, or even thoughtful skepticism, but with a steady stream of fatuousness driven by partisan goals instead of public interest. Lamentably, the nation has seemingly forgotten that, while we are all within our rights to have an opinion, all opinions are not equal.
At the time of Asimov’s writing, Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of endearing working-class white voters to the Republican Party was working. Vice President Spiro Agnew had been particularly effective at directing arrows and charging Democratic sympathies at journalists. Despite their falls from grace, Nixon and Agnew were successful in cementing a narrative that the media writ large was a cabal of college-educated elites who held average people in contempt. While the conspiratorial tones of Nixon and Agnew’s assertions were overblown, elements within the Left were less than circumspect when it came to respecting conservative thinkers or blue collar work.
As Nixon, at that time, sought to bolster his declining party membership through a contrived enemy, the American Left today seeks to hold onto its coalition through spurious pandering; some segments of the Left clearly relish their efforts to intellectually bully those they perceive as culturally inferior. “Cancel Culture,” which isn’t a movement so much as a hashtag, seeks silence not dialogue. What is up to be “canceled” is often arbitrary to the moment, not calibrated to sustained principle. People have every right to tune things out. However, substituting the musings of sophomoric social media commentary for bona fide expertise is regressive and dangerous. This cynical trope has been continuously playing out, disastrously, for decades.
Expertise in a Time of Coronavirus
This tide is, of course, laid most bare by the peculiar doubting of the medical consensus that COVID-19 is lethal and that the best defense is social distancing and wearing masks. No serious expert doubts this. Yet President Trump publicly describes the pandemic as the Democrat’s “new hoax,” even though he privately admitted to Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is more dangerous than any flu. Attorney General Barr recently proclaimed that lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are an unprecedented infringement upon liberty. This sophism betrays his own legal expertise, and the expertise of political scientists and historians who understand the Founders never defined liberty as the unabashed right to do what one desires. Liberty to them spoke to tyranny and oppression; it was not a concept hostile to public policy protecting the unalienable right to life. Indeed, such measures were affirmed as lawful by the Supreme Court.
Thus it is unsurprising, then, that while medical and public health experts have achieved pandemic consensus, grassroots elements aligned with the American Right have continued to substitute their less-than-informed opinions for the expertise of those who have dedicated their lives to the study of medicine.
The active use of the presidency to undermine the integrity of our professionals and institutions, often without any shred of evidence, is extraordinary. And it should be a major concern for those of us who believe that the ideals of the United States promote American exceptionalism. Trump, as evidenced by his truth telling to Woodward, sees only a game to be played, with our institutions and citizens but game pieces to be used and moved for his personal advantage. No scientific conclusion will challenge the rhetoric of the President because he will dither between “alternative facts,” developed so that he might avoid inconvenience or comeuppance. As President, his consistent undermining of expertise has only made our tribal politics worse.
Implications of Ignorance
The politicization of objective and qualified expertise reduces the quality of our public discussion and undermines the stability of the institutions needed to uphold any functioning republic. A frightening amount of our fellow citizens cannot readily discern between fact and conspiracy, between government and politics, between scientific research and YouTube searches, or between history and fiction. On the Left and on the Right, sizable portions of our population believe a nebulous “deep state” exists, that seeking reform is unpatriotic, or that the entirety of the system is irredeemable. Millions have disengaged entirely. All of this thinking undermines the wisdom of our founding, the quality of our public policy, and the legitimacy of our institutions.
The present state of affairs was forewarned. George Washington warned us of the perils of adherence to political parties over principles, and James Madison advised us to fear factions which elevate their interest as substitutes for the public good. An assumption of our Founders was that the people would embrace their responsibilities as citizens; that our bold experiment would yield a citizenry devoted to principled public discourse. Yet, here and now we find ourselves speaking of the contest for President in terms more fit for professional wrestling: Biden slams Trump for this; Trump hammers Biden for that.
Benjamin Franklin warned that our government will be a republic, but only if we can keep it. That famous utterance is possibly apocryphal. Nevertheless, we owe it to our republic to revere expertise and ensure the wisdom of our foundation perceivers.
Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D, has taught and currently teaches American History & American Government at a number of colleges. He's previously produced a public affairs radio show (Spotlight on Atlantic City, 96.1 WTTH) and is a veteran of numerous political campaigns.