The Fall of Technocracy: How the United States’ Rejection of Expertise Corrodes its Global Standing
On January 20, 1969, in his first inaugural address, President Richard Nixon described the national ethos that had propelled his country through almost two centuries of its history with one simple line: “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.”
A mere six months after the speech was given, the United States proved just that by successfully sending the first humans to the moon through the Apollo 11 mission. Such a feat not only stunned the world, but also reaffirmed an idea that had by then become ubiquitous and undisputed: that the U.S. could—and would—do anything.
For decades, the country has been characterized by its relentless pursuit of excellence and an intense desire to succeed. It was this spirit that fueled the U.S. to invest more than $25 billion into scientific research and development—as well as many years’ worth of labor—to win the Space Race. It was this same ethos that had motivated the U.S. to control over half of global industrial production by 1945. That same year, the United States also emerged as a victor in World War II, cementing its status as a mighty force on the world stage.
However, the United States’ image has changed recently, and its technical competence has been fiercely questioned.
With a domestic coronavirus death toll that has just surpassed 100,000 casualties and continues to escalate at an alarmingly-rapid rate, many are doubting whether the U.S. remains the global superpower it has long been recognized as, especially under the Trump administration.
“Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world,” Fintan O’Toole wrote in a column for The Irish Times, “but there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.”
A major reason for the decay of the United States’ reputation in the eyes of the international community has been the increase in the suppression of information and expertise spearheaded by President Donald Trump.
In an interview with The Politic, Sheri Berman ‘87, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, expressed that under Trump, the “undermining of government institutions, as well as a denigration of expertise, has not only been problematic for the pandemic response, but also for [the] government and society in general.”
Even before his presidency, Trump had been vocal about his skepticism in fields such as science, making statements that called climate change a Chinese hoax. However, throughout his tenure, Trump has not only shown hostility towards the work of academics and professionals, but has also encouraged others to adopt such attitudes. One prominent way he has done this is through attacks on media companies, which are key in sharing factual information from experts with the American populace.
Berman emphasized how alarming the latter activity has been, as it contributes to the degradation of one of the fundamental pillars of American society. “Freedom of speech and freedom of press are necessary conditions to a well-functioning democracy,” said Berman. “Anything that threatens that, threatens the functioning of democracy overall.”
In addition to the press, one particular group that has been especially targeted by the Trump administration has been the technocrats, whom Berman defined as “individuals who make decisions based on their technical expertise,” and are “appointed to positions of authority because they are seen as experts, not because they are elected officials.”
As the U.S. faces one of the most severe public health crises in its modern history, there are those who advocate for technocracy as a means to guide the country.
Iziah Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst for the Office of the New York City Comptroller, told The Politic that “technocracy is a very charged term” that can be defined in many ways, but that at its core it would entail “a better run society…that installs a higher degree of power [to] experts in government: bureaucrats that often work irrespective of what political machinations are underway.”
Thompson added that he and others who support technocracy “believe that there is a more scientific way to look at and implement public policy; […and that…] this power must be understood in the context of its balance with democratic control.” Thomson affirmed that protecting democracy is essential, but that the current status quo in the U.S. is flawed and in need of reform—reform which could effectively occur by providing technocrats with greater authority.
Although the United States has never adopted a fully technocratic government, it has long flourished as a global center for the development of scholars and experts. In addition to domestic professionals, the country has nurtured many renowned groups of foreign technocrats such as the Berkeley Mafia and the Chicago Boys, who returned to Indonesia and Chile respectively to apply their technocratic education and successfully catalyze growth in their socioeconomically stagnant nations.
U.S. leaders have also often integrated technocratic elements into governance. Members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust”—an academic advisory team composed primarily of experts in law and economics—became key advisers to Roosevelt during the Great Depression and were integral in shaping policies such as the New Deal.
Thompson told The Politic that “the reality is that [the United States] federal government did get somewhat more technocratic under the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations.” One of Thompson’s own professors from the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Tatiana Homonoff, was a part of the Social and Behavioral Science Team in the Obama White House, which aimed to “apply behavioral science insights to the work government agencies did.”
Technocracy in the United States has always existed in some form, but has never been truly widely-accepted. As Berman informed The Politic, the two main problems of this system were that it could “bring forth democratic legitimacy problems” and exacerbate “a disjuncture between the ideas of technocrats and the general populace.” Yet in 2020, American technocracy could meet its absolute extinction at the hands of the Trump administration.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Trump has shown great animosity towards expertise. This has been reflected both in his words and in his actions, especially in proposed changes to the federal budget. In 2019, President Trump proposed a $5 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health, a $1 billion cut to the National Science Foundation, and a $2.7 billion cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2020, Trump again proposed deep reductions in government funds—this time to education and science agencies.
The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted how Trump’s distrust of experts has proven to be a deterrent to the United States’ development. From overestimating the U.S. coronavirus testing capacity, to praising antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for the coronavirus when this has been proven false by studies, Trump’s statements and decisions have had egregious consequences.
“Lives [have been] lost, plain and simple,” Emil Friedman ‘20, a Political Science major, told The Politic. “Had the administration taken seriously the warnings about COVID-19 in January, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved through better testing, tracking, and strategic stay-at-home orders in order to slow the initial spread.”
Friedman came to Yale in 2016, a few months before Trump was elected president. Possessing a passion for politics, he intended to major in the subject, and aspired to later work for the federal government. Four years later, his plans and those of many of his peers in political science have changed.
“Most of us have shied away from doing federal public policy,” said Friedman. “I decided to go into the private sector, and a lot of my friends have too. It’s difficult to work in a public sector environment where so much [of the] expertise and the content you learned at a place like Yale is totally rejected.”
The Trump administration’s hostile behavior towards expertise deprives the United States of potential contributions from professionals such as Friedman. This, in turn, promotes dysfunction, as it hinders the development of national human capital, innovation and production.
The president’s disregard of scientific advice and factual information has recently intensified due to the current fragile economy and the pressures of an election year, which motivate him to make decisions based on political bias and personal instinct as opposed to data-based choices that may be beneficial in the long-run but unpopular in the short-run.
Despite the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has often worked to undermine the advice of experts around him. From disbanding advisory boards to limiting speaking time for key scientists in briefings, the Trump administration has done much in an attempt to ensure that the influence of experts does not eclipse that of the president. Highly-skilled health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci—a member of the federal government coronavirus task force and current director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—have constantly been silenced. Despite Fauci’s important role in the government’s COVID-19 response, the White House recently blocked him from testifying in a House of Representatives committee on that same topic.
In a virtual town hall held in late March, Trump claimed—against the advice of health officials who warned him that the worst effects of the pandemic were yet to come—that the U.S. would be open by Easter, and that one couldn’t just “close up the United States of America, the most successful country in the world by far.” This grand promise, filled with characteristic bravado and overconfidence, appealed greatly to Trump’s Republican base, which had been displeased by the inconveniences caused by quarantine.
Yet Trump was unable to fulfill this promise. Instead, the reopening process only began weeks later, a move which a public model predicted would lead to a 70 percent increase in the daily coronavirus death toll from May to June.
“With Trump it’s hard to even discuss technocracy, for he is sort of anti-technocracy,” stated Thompson. “He seems to despise bureaucrats and often trafficks in conspiracy… Trump gives a perfect example of what a technocracy does not call for. The idea of technocrat leadership calls for meritocratic well-paid professionals. These leaders should not have even the slightest hint of the perception of a conflict of interest or corruption.”
The U.S.’ lack of initiative in guiding the global coronavirus response—as well as its poor management of other events such as recent racial tensions—has led to other countries filling this leadership role. New Zealand, for example, declared on June 8 that the country had become coronavirus free. This was the result of a strict months-long lockdown and other science-backed measures like intense widespread testing which were recommended by health experts and heeded by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Similarly positive results have also been seen in other countries with a great appreciation for experts and technocracy such as Taiwan, South Korea and Germany.
However, while leadership in countries such as New Zealand has garnered much international praise, the opposite has been true for the United States.
In a poll by French digital agency Reputation Squad, only two percent of those surveyed had confidence that Trump was leading the global coronavirus response in the right direction. In a survey organized by William & Mary and Foreign Policy, 80.3 percent of surveyed international relations scholars rated the United States’ role in coordinating the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic as being “not effective at all.”
If the United States continues to adhere to its rejection of knowledge and expertise, as well as its conspicuous denial of truth, it will not only have to grieve more tragic loss of life in the future, but also the loss of its reputation as a global power with the strength and competence to reliably overcome obstacles. With leadership shrouded in lethargy, instead of progressing forward with ambition and determination, the U.S. will find itself morphing into a mere shadow of its former self.