A war on public life

I generally find E. J. Dionne too bland and middleground, but he’s good today on how contempt for expertise has led us to this runway to hell.

For the past week or so, an avalanche of commentary about the chaos of the Trump regime has pointed to how key appointees are rushing toward the exits; how Trump springs new policies with little preparation and changes his views news cycle to news cycle; how ill-prepared Trump and many of his aides were for the rigors of the White House; and how recklessly they cast aside norms and rules aimed at preventing conflicts of interest and sleaze.

How did we get a government of this sort? For decades, our country has been witness to a war on public life. Legitimate dissatisfaction with government has turned into contempt for government itself and a denial of the indispensability of politics.

We value expertise from our doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists. But when it comes to government, there is a popular assumption that those who spend their lives mastering the arts of administration, politics and policymaking must be up to no good. This inclination, by the way, is prevalent in other democracies, too.

Well we do and we don’t value expertise from our doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists. There’s plenty of anti-intellectualism and down with expertisism aimed at them too. Anti-vaxxers? Goop? Detox? Homeopathy? Jade eggs? Naturopathic everything, chatter about the spirit as opposed to science, yadda yadda. People aren’t knitting their own freeway bridges yet, but it could happen.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we did the opposite? If we taught it as a cardinal principle that we should respect knowledge, and be aware of what we don’t know, and try to learn more instead of trying to diminish the value of knowing?

It is an attitude that leads voters to mistake inexperience for purity and outsider status (often, as in Trump’s case, a feigned outsiderism) for an exceptional understanding of the people’s wishes.

It has turned the word “politician” into an epithet, even though most of our best presidents (Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt especially) have been politicians through and through. The cliched and supposedly high-minded distinction between “a politician” and “a statesman” was always wrong. It’s coming back to haunt us.

Add LBJ to that list. If he’d been less of a “politician” he wouldn’t have been able to nudge and bully Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Yes, democracy can be frustrating. Our leaders have made big mistakes. Power and wealth are concentrated into too few hands. But repairing our problems requires citizens willing to engage in public life, not shun it, and people in government who respect the work they are asked to undertake.

Clueless narcissistic real-estate developers are not among those people.

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