Democracy Is Dying as Technocrats Watch

Assaults on democracy are working because our current political elites have no idea how to defend it.

On Nov. 29, three weeks after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, the following chart, showing a precipitous decline in support for democracy around the world, went viral after appearing in the New York Times:

Plenty of public argument ensued about the validity of the underlying data. But there was hardly any comprehension among experts about why moral support for democracy might be eroding — in part, because there’s good reason to think that experts are themselves to blame.

This is most obvious in the case of Trump, who devoted a large share of his presidential campaign not just to attacking democratic norms but also to attacking the technocratic experts who have come to symbolize democracy in the United States.

I have no sympathy for Trump’s repulsive disregard for facts, truth, and legitimate expertise. Yet he was canny in identifying how both parties’ technocratic mindset — their approaching every problem with a five-point plan designed to produce evidence-based deliverables — had left democracy vulnerable. Trump knew that if he waged a war on democratic values, the technocrats who now monopolize the country’s political elite would be incapable of fighting back.

Technocrats have always shown little interest in fights over fundamental values. Their work proceeds from the assumption that everyone — or at least all the people who truly matter — already share the same enlightened commitment to democratic values. The only debate they are concerned about is over evidence on “what works” among policy inputs to produce the desired measurable outputs, like higher wages and GDP, less poverty, less crime and terrorism, or less war.

The problem occurs when some people turn out not to share those enlightened values and insist on challenging them. Technocrats, in these situations, don’t know what to say because they can’t rely on evidence to make their case. So when technocrats are all we have to defend democracy, fights over fundamental values become embarrassingly one-sided.

Hillary Clinton was the perfect case in point, a politician so technocratic that she even embarrassed other technocrats. Her campaign website listed bullet-point plans to solve 41 different measurable problems, each one containing multiple sub-plans to solve multiple sub-problems. There was even a plan to protect the interests of dogs, cats, and horses. She almost reached the level of that reductio ad absurdum of global technocracy, the widely ridiculed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with their 17 goals and 169 targets.

Maybe Clinton’s website shouldn’t matter that much, but her speeches often read off the same long list of planned solutions to many different problems. Mario Cuomo’s dictum was to campaign in poetry and to govern in prose. Clinton’s campaign wonkiness didn’t even reach prose.

So Clinton was not the best candidate possible to answer Trump’s terrifying frontal assault on the core enlightenment value that all are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Trump called Mexicans rapists and demanded a ban on Muslims entering the country. Clinton countered with plans for a “comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to full and equal citizenship,” including measures to “fix the family visa backlog,” to “end the three- and 10-year bars,” and have “targeted” immigration enforcement.

Trump bragged about grabbing women by the “pussy.” Clinton planned to address “issues that affect women’s lives,” such as “family issues, economic issues” that affect “our future competitiveness,” promoting “pay transparency across the economy,” granting “paid leave,” and ensuring “quality, affordable child care.”

Trump threatened to put more black people in jail with “law and order.” Clinton’s plan for racial justice was to “[r]eform our broken criminal justice system by reforming sentencing laws and policies” — thereby “strengthening the bonds of trust between communities and police, and more” — and to “develop greener and more resilient infrastructure,” as well as to “double America’s investment in Early Head Start.”

If Americans listening to the yearlong debate between Trump and Clinton felt less moral devotion to democracy, could you blame them? Clinton’s answer to Trump’s assault on democratic values had about as much moral grandeur as the rhetoric of the ethanol lobby. And Clinton’s constant targeted appeals to women, gays, blacks, and Hispanics sounded more like an alliance of interest groups rather than a defense of equality for all and was thus vulnerable to Trump’s insinuations to white audiences that Democrats didn’t care about them. The Clinton campaign’s rhetoric was a long way from “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing … ‘Free at Last!’”

Technocrats do not even have a good answer for technocratic-sounding attacks on democracy. Technocrats’ defense of democracy on the basis of “what works” was always vulnerable because the anti-democratic side was not going to be maximally scrupulous about the evidence in any case. It also makes liberal values hostages to fortune. Whether because of the incompetence of experts or just a string of bad luck, democracies haven’t been performing very well lately. The foreign-policy experts guided wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq that seemingly made terrorism worse. Domestic economists gave us the 2008 financial crisis — and a response afterward that bailed out banks too big to fail but treated families losing homes as too small to care about. Dictator-run China is taking over ever larger chunks of the world economy while U.S. wages stagnate.

Experts often cannot agree on “what works” or even what already happened. Some experts could still credibly argue that in the long run democracies worldwide outperform dictatorships on average, but there is disagreement, and few have the patience to wait for long-run world averages to reassert themselves. Which is why the principal defense of democratic values must be that they are desirable in themselves as values — something technocrats are not trained to do.

Which is not to suggest they don’t have any resources at their disposal. My own field of economics can be so technical that whenever I give a talk mentioning values, I feel like I have to apologize. Yet economics is better equipped to defend values than usually believed. At the core of models of economic behavior is individual choice. Hidden in plain sight is the assumption that all individuals — whether male, female, white, black, gay, Muslim, or Latino — should indeed have equal rights to make decisions for themselves. The assumptions that guide analysis of what makes people better off embody the same respect for individual choice — we infer A is better than B for an individual if they voluntarily selected A over B. And if an individual chose something for himself or herself that did not make anyone else worse off, we say that overall well-being improved.

Although these principles are more than a century old in economics and are still at the core of our textbooks, they get sporadic attacks and less attention than they should due to our infatuation with evidence-based policy. Yet as Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser argued along the same lines in 2011, economics still has a “moral spine” beneath all the technocracy: “That spine is a fundamental belief in freedom.” As the economist John Stuart Mill said almost 150 years ago, the true test of freedom is not whether we care about our own rights but whether we care about “the rights of others.”

But can economics provide a conception of democracy that truly protects the “rights of others”? The field does indeed offer a potential defense against one of the core democratic dangers — the possibility that a tyrannical majority might vote to violate the rights of some minority group. Economists teach that it’s in a majority party’s interest to conduct a simple thought experiment before making political decisions: Since it’s impossible to know for sure that they will always be in the majority, and they could always wind up as part of some minority that some future majority decides to tyrannize, they should make political decisions behind a so-called “veil of ignorance” that sets aside their personal status and group affiliations. And anyone running that thought experiment faithfully would join a coalition to protect all future minority and individual rights.

Needless to say, the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment is ultimately a voluntary exercise. This year’s U.S. election tore the veil of ignorance to shreds and not for the first time. Many white men apparently did not perceive, or consider, this “ignorance” about the future, feeling confident that they will always have enough power to protect themselves and thus are free not to vote to protect the rights of others.

The long campaign for equal rights, by mixing eloquent moral appeals with “veil of ignorance” warnings, has nevertheless tried to make us all care just enough about other groups to forge a broad coalition in favor of democracy. Our technocratic age often sees such appeals as sentimentalism — more suitable for refrigerator magnets than serious debates. But Trump’s attack on core values required a response of such universal moral appeals — to white people as well as to minorities — instead of Clinton’s coalition of minorities and the 41-point plan of measurable outcomes on her website.

Democratic values have never been capable of defending themselves — equal rights require eloquent defenses capable of building broad alliances on their behalf. History offers plenty of inspiration. Abraham Lincoln: “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.” Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Elie Wiesel: “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

Or take this famous quote by an anti-Nazi pastor. It warns explicitly against the consequences of failing to respect the veil of ignorance:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Grand sentiments can’t sustain politics by themselves; technical expertise has its place. But the long reign of technocracy has deprived us of the moral weapons needed to defend the core values that are the foundation of democracy. We are sadly lacking in any figures remotely resembling King or Wiesel today. But we will not be able to fight back against Trump unless we can find once again a capacity for moral advocacy for democratic values.

Photo credit: CHARLIE LEIGHT/Getty Images

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