This past August, I had the good fortune to attend a week-long summer institute on “America in the Republican Tradition,” hosted by the Jack Miller Center in Philadelphia. The daily roundtable discussions provided an opportunity to grapple with many contested questions in the American republican tradition, including what it means to treat people as citizens. Connected to this question, Wilfred McClay encouraged participants to consider what the role of experts should be in a citizen-led republic. Based on the preceding conversation, as well as the tone of the question, it seemed that McClay expected a rebuke of technocracy and a hearty endorsement of rule by citizens, however those terms might be defined.
The irony of a group of academics sitting around a seminar table on a sunny summer afternoon in Philadelphia, discussing the relative merits of expertise, was not lost on me. It is perhaps precisely scenes like these that make ordinary citizens think of experts as out-of-touch, technocratic elitists—or worse, know-it-all liberal arts professors.
Although some experts, Nate Silver for instance, seem to be lauded for their ability to run the numbers and predict future outcomes, such praise tends to end once the predictions don’t shake out. It’s not necessarily the case that these experts’ method of statistical analysis changes, but public perception of it does. And if the so-called experts seem to predict wrong outcomes, what qualifies them to be experts anyway? Why should we listen to them rather than trust our own reason and experience?
Skepticism in America toward experts and expertise is not new. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, wherein he argued that American culture has always harbored traces of anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism due to its colonial, Protestant historical foundation. He also claimed, however, that aversion toward intellectualism has increased because the democratization of education has reshaped the understanding of the intellect in American society.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, this democratization of education in America has intensified. Through Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and laws like Title IX, education has become more readily available to Americans of marginalized backgrounds. Although there are still barriers to entry based on gender, class, and race, access to education, particularly higher education, has become more widespread across the United States. And the internet has only increased this democratization. Now with the power of global knowledge at our fingertips, we have the ability to look up anything, learn anything, and see anything.
But while the access to knowledge unlocked by the internet is incredibly liberating—even empowering—it is also dizzying. In an age where anyone with internet access can post whatever they please, grounded in fact or otherwise, it has become increasingly difficult to judge whether sources can be trusted. Anyone online can claim to be an expert, so how do we figure out who actually is one? And if we do determine that someone is an expert, does that mean that we have to listen to and obey their TED Talk?
Like Hofstadter suggested, there does seem to be something deeply American about the distrust of experts in favor of one’s own faculties. We do not like to be told what to do—we tend to challenge tradition, convention, and authority. Civil disobedience and self-reliance are as American as baseball and apple pie. Inspired by our founding principles of liberty and equality, we Americans are inclined to not accept the rule of others merely because they have more knowledge or letters at the end of their names. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Henri Gregoire in 1809, whatever someone’s “degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
Jefferson did not think that Newton had any claim to rule over others based on his superior intelligence and scientific training, but the ancients did endorse the rule of the wise. Indeed, Plato’s Socrates in the Republic considers those who are wisest the best rulers, and it is precisely because they are wise that he thinks they make for good rulers; because they know that ruling is an inferior way of life to that of philosophy, Socrates claims that philosophers will rule better than those desirous of power. Aristotle, too, believed that those with the most virtue were best and most deserving of rule. Even the dastardly Machiavelli, outspoken critic of the ancients, thought that the best rulers were those who had the most knowledge and skill when it came to the art of rule.
But Americans do not want to be ruled by philosopher-kings. We generally tend to admire those politicians who seem—even if only for appearance’s sake—to be one of the people. Time and time again American citizens have rejected presidential candidates who appeared overly cerebral in favor of those who would make for better drinking partners. It is often a negative, not a positive, to have graduated from Harvard. Of course, there have been exceptions; President , for instance, was able to avoid appearing too much like an elite by emphasizing his experience as a community organizer and playing along with internet memes of himself. However, right after President Obama, we elected President Trump, who made distrust of the establishment and of elites, particularly those within the swamp of Washington, D.C, part of his campaign’s rallying cry.
Antipathy toward establishment elites is not something that only President Trump has tapped into. Presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren also rail against the establishment and those who entrenched in the government bureaucracy. There seems to be a growing sentiment that outsiders, not those with experience in government, are the ones who ought to be ruling today. Such a view suggests that political expertise is either unnecessary or corrupting.
And yet, despite all the anti-expert sentiment among Americans, past and present, was not the United States founded by a group of experts? While I was in that seminar room in Philadelphia this past summer, I could not help but think of the Founding Fathers and the many afternoons they spent locked away in the Pennsylvania State House’s non-air-conditioned rooms debating what they should accept as their foundational political principles and how they should best structure a federal system of government.
James Madison, deemed the Father of the Constitution, was the sort of intellectual that even R1 scholars would consider bookish. It took him only two years to complete a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), where he studied Greek, Latin, theology, and Enlightenment philosophy. Upon finishing his degree, Madison decided to remain at school for another year to study Hebrew and political philosophy before returning home to Virginia to study law. Prior to the Constitutional Convention, Madison immersed himself in international law and the constitutions of ancient and modern confederacies, including the Dutch Republic, the Swiss Confederation, and the Achaean League. It is hard to imagine a politician today with such expert knowledge of political principles.
Although Madison and the rest of the Founding Fathers do get criticized for being elites, much of the focus of that criticism tends to be over the fact that they were a group of white, male, upper-class men, many of whom owned slaves, who established a system of government that helped to keep others like them in positions of power. The Founding Fathers can rightfully be criticized for their failure to live up to the ideals of liberty and equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, especially regarding slavery. Americans usually have a lot of opinions, both positive and negative, about the Founding Fathers, but in my experience, there are typically not that many complaints about Madison, Jefferson, or Hamilton being too smart or knowing too much. Indeed, Americans tend to praise them for their political acumen and foresight.
Were the Founding Fathers experts? And if so, does that mean that the United States was founded by experts rather than ordinary citizens?
The Founding Fathers were experts in the sense that they were highly educated about the law, political philosophy, and Enlightenment thought and in many cases also had practical political and military experience. It was this knowledge and experience that enabled them to produce a plan for government that has endured with few amendments for over 230 years. Nevertheless, even though these expert men did create and adopt a constitution for the rest of the nation behind closed doors, ordinary citizens were not entirely excluded from this process.
After the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, it still needed to be ratified by at least nine of the original thirteen states. This ratification required the people of each state—not their chosen representatives in the state legislatures—to vote to approve the new plan of government. Such a ratification process meant that the people had the ultimate power to decide whether to adopt or reject the laws under which they would live. Madison wrote in a letter to George Washington in April 1787 that the ratification of the Constitution by the people rather than the “ordinary authority of the Legislatures” would give the new system of government “proper validity and energy.”
In this ratification process, we see a way in which expertise in politics is recognized and utilized but not idolized. Those men with the most knowledge and skill drafted the Constitution, but it was not up to those men to decide whether that Constitution was ultimately adopted. Ordinary citizens were entrusted to make that choice for themselves, and the advocates of the Constitution and its federal system had to work hard to persuade them to give their consent.
I see this process as a model of how to benefit from the talents and experience of experts without letting those experts override the power of ordinary citizens. Between September 1787 when the Constitution was signed and June 1788 when it was ratified, there was hearty debate between experts and citizens and among the citizens themselves about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed document—debate that ultimately led to the creation of the Bill of Rights. Here we see how ordinary citizens can heed but also challenge the counsel of experts. Those early Americans did not blindly accept what the experts produced, but they also did not dismiss it out of hand because it had come from experts.
To have such a dialectical relationship between experts and citizens today is possible, particularly given the tremendous technological advancements we have made in improving methods of communication. But we need citizens who are informed about basic political principles, who can analyze and evaluate different policies, and most importantly who care enough not to leave these decisions up to the experts alone. Too frequently I witness a sense of defeatism among ordinary citizens who claim that politics is either too confusing or too boring for them to care. It might be true that the American bureaucracy has grown into such a gargantuan body that ordinary citizens feel they cannot understand its inner machinations. If that is the case, we need to think seriously about how our political institutions can become more comprehensible for the average citizen.
The most concerning issue, however, is the sense of apathy that many Americans appear to feel toward their own politics. How do we fix that?
It is possible that a solution can be found in the very anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter argued is rooted in the American tradition. As access to education continues to become more widespread and democratic, more ordinary citizens will possess the ability to challenge the recommendations of experts and demand more from their elected officials. The key is to make sure that citizens receive the necessary civic education to carry out this duty. Citizens must be able to have a dialectical relationship with experts, like they had during the Founding. Otherwise, we might find ourselves either being ruled by experts or rejecting their expertise altogether; neither possibility is desirable, as both threaten the republican balance struck in 1787.
Colleen E. Mitchell is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is in part based on notes taken during the August 2019 Jack Miller Center Summer Institute, held in Philadelphia, PA.