“The Death of Expertise: The Risk to American Security and Democracy” was a talk given by Dr. Thomas Nichols, to promote his book by the same name. Dr. Thomas Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate, specializing in defense and security policy. He specializes in Soviet/Russian affairs and is a former Secretary of the Navy Fellow at Naval War College.
Nichols began with the concept of the “death of expertise” in policymaking which he acknowledged was a dramatic but yet real phenomenon that was posing a real threat to U.S. national security and democracy. Americans have very little foundational knowledge about the world, but a lot of strong opinions (to demonstrate, he pointed out a particular 2014 study that demonstrated that the worse someone could place Ukraine on a map correlated with them advocating a much stronger and aggressive military response to the situation). A more recent phenomenon, occurring hand-in-hand with populism, is the impulse that ordinary Americans have that they know just as much or more than experts.
Nichols partly attributes this phenomenon to what he called “40-50 years of the therapeutic approach to education”, which is what is making college kids soft and making them think that education is not supposed to be uncomfortable, so that they don’t learn anything. As a current college kid, this kind of rhetoric is both generally expected from certain adults and rather frustrating to listen to. I mean, I cannot compare my anecdotal educational experience to whatever anecdotal evidence he has of his own educational experience. But generalizations of college kids never wanting to be uncomfortable seems strange given that we’re growing up in a moment where racism emanates from the top political office and stories of workplace and campus harassment are coming from people of all ages. I’m sure there are certain trends in education now that may or may not be actually helpful. But it’s frustrating to be treated like college kids have no sense of personal responsibility.
Another big contributor to the fact that Americans are not super well informed is the media. Talk radio essentially reinforces people’s own views, and the 24-hour news cycle is too much. It’s great to have the diversity of viewpoints, but now we have an overload, and people can only graze the news. I think this is an interesting point, because I do agree that we are oversaturated with news, and it does lead to people distrusting the mainstream media more for fringe sources, which can be problematic. But I don’t think limiting ourselves to 3 news channels, like Nichols suggests was a superior model, is the right answer. Either way — the explosion of Twitter and social media means that it’s highly unlikely that we can ever go back to a time when we weren’t constantly bombarded by news. Now, we have to instead focus on strategies for dealing with it, and I think Nichols could have spent more time on that.
Rejecting expertise feels empowering, but it poses a significant threat to national security. Many people might think that many political problems stem from the fact that Washington does not listen to them enough. But in fact, Nichols says, the problem is that Washington listens to them too much, and the people, because of their lack of foundational knowledge, cannot actually give coherent direction. This can be seen in the example of the public wanting the repeal of Obamacare, but to keep the Affordable Care Act, not realizing that they were the same thing. And while the public wants decreased taxes, they do not necessarily understand what the current Republican tax bill has in it. Propaganda and fake news suddenly have a new power in our broken system.
Populism is great for expressing anger but not necessarily for governing. Nichols says the threat to democracy, then, is not necessarily rule by mob, but rather rule by a technocracy. If a mob can’t keep the lights on, the people may turn away from governance entirely and allow the experts to run all foreign policy matters without any public input, Nichols says. And that’s the real threat to American democracy and security.
I’m not entirely sure if I entirely follow this concluding point that he makes — it sounds slightly too dystopian, and I don’t think he spent enough time building the evidence for that particular conclusion. But overall, I think he isolated a salient issue that requires further study. I’m interested in learning more.