For a year filled with fear and uncertainty, as plague collided with the final eruptions of the Trump era, the political lessons of 2020 are uncannily clear. Elite institutional authority is everywhere collapsing in a bonfire of self-immolation even as elite institutions become ever more powerful.
What ties the impeachment drama that began the year together with the pandemic, months of political violence and faulty predictions of a Biden blowout, is a system-wide failure of expert knowledge and elite institutional response. “Where were all the experts?” asked New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo in April, at the height of his state’s Covid outbreak. Cuomo blamed more or less every wing of the sprawling structure of elite expertise, pointing the finger for what happened on his watch at “the international health community… the WHO, the NIH, the CDC… the intelligence community… the New York Times… the Wall Street Journal”.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Sure, the governor’s complaint was self-serving given his own disastrous handling of the pandemic, but it wasn’t wrong. Weeks earlier, the Center for Disease Control, after months of declaring face masks ineffective and imploring the public not to wear them — a position echoed by the US Surgeon General, by Biden’s soon-to-be chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci, and by most of the media — abruptly reversed course and endorsed face covering as vital to containing the spread of Covid.
Masks were the most visible representation of this: a year defined by politicised expert opinion detaching itself from reality and undergoing sudden reversals. Mass gatherings went from deadly superspreader events to being practically mandatory as a matter of public moral hygiene, with the rise of the BLM protests in May. Covering up such absurdities required the combined effort of ideological enforcers in the press and on social media, brute intimidation by people with hiring and firing power, and the constant appearance of a new crisis to distract from the last.
The compound effect was a cleavage in which half the country now rejects the legitimacy of America’s nominally non-political institutions. Tucker Carlson, whose relentless criticism of the ruling class has made him the top-rated cable news host in the country, summed up the sentiment in a recent segment on how the “experts have been exposed as frauds”. But this is not only a right-wing or populist phenomenon. From the liberal centre, Yascha Mounk wrote in late December about “losing trust in the institutions”.
The first important lesson from the past year is that this revolt against the experts is not a fringe phenomenon driven by QAnon loons, hysterical anti-vaxxers and other untouchables. It is widespread and its consequences are already profound. On the surface, people are simply rejecting the authority of institutions such as the CDC, which now openly advocates for racial preferences and places political calculations before the public good. But beneath that rejection, there is a cultural shift at the level of animating beliefs.
For millions of people, a disenchantment has broken the spell which upheld their faith in rational, scientific knowledge as the best means to tame the natural chaos of reality and administer the business of society. On top of all the other disenchantments undermining America’s founding myths, this one erodes the foundation on which the entire technocratic regime of modern society rests.
Given the rather obvious importance of public health officials in the midst of a pandemic, why not seek to replace them with a better class of expert, instead of attacking the basis of expertise? The answer to that is in the second lesson of 2020: far from losing status after the repeated errors and deceptions of the past year, America’s institutional elite is more powerful than ever.
Perhaps some reputational damage has been inflicted on the experts who warned that the real threat of the coronavirus was overreacting, or worse, racism, and on the elite activists who advanced a deeply unpopular police abolition agenda ahead of national elections, and on the scientific establishment that declared “white supremacy” to be “a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19”.
But those costs are marginal compared to the material and political gains. If you are one of the people or organisations which repeatedly got the coronavirus wrong, abetted wanton political violence and destruction, or once again misread the American electorate, odds are very good that your funding streams, political influence, institutional power and leverage over your fellow Americans are going increase over the next four years of the Biden administration.
The collective fortunes of the experts who failed Andrew Cuomo and the citizens of New York have run in parallel with those of the governor. Cuomo oversaw a fiercely politicised coronavirus response. He made costly mistakes, including his mandate that nursing homes accept discharged Covid-19 patients without testing to determine if they were still contagious, a policy that resulted in thousands of deaths (we don’t know exactly how many because he refuses to release the numbers). And yet, somehow in the midst of a death toll approaching 40,000 he found the time to write a book touting “leadership lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic” and do a victory tour.
He’s laundered his reputation in a way that can only be compared to the Russiagate diehards. The political actors and intelligence operatives claiming a Trump-Putin conspiracy who were exposed as, at best, delusional frauds have faced no consequences. Rather, they’ve been rewarded with campaign contributions, book deals, TV appearances, and other tokens of commercial and cultural prestige. The vast surveillance apparatus that engineered the domestic spying operation has been legitimised as a tool for correcting against unfortunate errors in democracy when the will of the people gets it wrong.
The future is looking bright for the DC foreign policy elite whose combined wisdom produced the Iraq War, abetted the catastrophe in Syria, scoffed at Trump’s efforts at a peace deal in the Middle East, and who now fight tooth and nail to keep US troops stranded in a lost war in Afghanistan.
In the last week of December, that paragon of public expertise, Dr Anthony Fauci, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he admitted to lying to the American public. “Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts” on the necessary threshold of vaccinations before America would achieve herd immunity, according to the Times. His reason for misleading the public? “His gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.”
Sometimes, good leaders deceive the public in moments of crisis to achieve a greater good. But that is not the case here. If you are bragging to the media about it, it was not a noble lie. Fauci’s lie appears to have served no vital purpose related to public health — as if anyone opposed to vaccination would be moved by a 10-point spread in Fauci’s estimates. I don’t envy any leader charged with directing policy in the midst of a plague, but Fauci’s problem is not that he made errors but is so utterly unaware of that fact; that insulated by political celebrity and bureaucratic sinecure, he would choose to conspicuously gloat about his deceptions in the Times. On the same day, the interview appeared, the good doctor received a birthday serenade from Joe and Jill Biden.
The political elites of both parties are ending the year on top. The Democratic leadership defeated the populist threat from Bernie Sanders and now has one of its own, Joe Biden, leading the country. The Republican leadership has its own reasons to be happy about a Biden White House. The GOP got very comfortable adopting the symbolism of Trumpism while blocking White House policies like stimulus spending and ending the war in Afghanistan. With Trump out of office, Republicans can drop the balancing act and go back to satisfying the party’s donor base with cheap labour, austerity policies, foreign military adventures and the distraction of permanent culture war.
Underwriting the growing power of this interconnected media-administrative-political elite is the new American oligarchy led by Silicon Valley. The same tech industry that led a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic, censoring non-expert opinions while amplifying institutions like the World Health Authority, while the WHO at various points opposed wearing masks, criticised travel bans as ineffective, and disputed that the virus is highly contagious — all while lavishing praise on China. The US is down 10 million jobs since the start of the year. One hundred and sixty thousand small businesses have shuttered. Children are going without school and friendship, ordinary people are languishing in isolation and despair. But with government stimulus spending facilitating an immense upward transfer of wealth, the top tier of corporate profits has soared along with the stock market.
“The tactics that helped many corporate titans thrive — laying off thousands of workers, going deep into debt, and grabbing market share from struggling competitors — will shape the recovery for months, if not years,” the Wall Street Journal reported in December. In the past year, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple have added a total of $2 trillion in market value between them.
The spillover from that record-setting cash grab will go directly to subsidising the failing elite institutions and expert bodies that are cutting off the oxygen to American society. But the crucial question is why elite institutions that are so error prone, and so untrustworthy, don’t suffer for their repeated failings.
The answer begins with understanding the nature of their power. In a society with a useful class of elites, their legitimating authority would be bound to the national interest and derive from the benefits they produce for the larger society. Likewise, in a functioning technocratic establishment the value of expertise would be a function of how accurately it can assess complex events, explain reality and forecast outcomes. But that is not what we have. For the American ruling class, expertise is a ceremonial costume conferring power through mystifying rituals. The mantra of this cohort, “believe science,” says it all. It’s an incantation in a cheap magic act, one that has nothing to do with science.
If you still think science is above this kind of thing, too important to be compromised by ideology and self-interest, just look at the US military. The military has transformed into an institution in which the highest level of leadership is so estranged from its fundamental purpose — to win wars and secure peace at home — it responds to losing wars by absorbing the logic of defeat into its essential operations. The fact of America’s failure in Afghanistan becomes the reason to stay.
The iron law of the American elite is that as long as everyone fails together, everyone fails upwards. Regime loyalty is the herd immunity of the ruling class, a protection against the consequences of their own failures. This is why the loss in authority that manifests in the “crisis of experts”, while real, doesn’t diminish their power. But it’s also why the regime has to become more ideological and nakedly coercive — for a kingdom of experts without reliable expertise falls back on propaganda and state power.