At the moment, national polls show Herman Cain leading or tied for the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. This, despite the fact that he has never won an election, has never held public office (except on a regional Federal Reserve advisory panel), and has shown prodigious ignorance on some important foreign-policy and domestic issues.
We in the punditocracy have been attributing Cain’s lead to many conservatives’ resistance to frequent frontrunner Mitt Romney. Many have described Cain as the flavor of the month and have predicted his numbers will collapse, as Michele Bachmann’s and Rick Perry’s have.
Reasonable analysis, as far as it goes. But I think Cain’s current lead is evidence of a larger and longer-range trend that is both heartening and disturbing.
I call it the revolt against the experts.
It has been going on for a long time. In the years after World War II, when pollsters first started testing confidence in leaders and institutions, mid-century Americans expressed great confidence and respect for experts and those at the head of large organizations.
This was an unsurprising result, since the leaders of big government, big business, and big labor had produced a glorious victory in World War II and then seemed to produce postwar prosperity when almost everyone expected a return to depression.
Confidence in leaders and respect for expertise fell in the years that gave us the Vietnam War, Watergate, and stagflation. They’re at a low point now, after years in which experts seemed to fail in Iraq and at home.
Consider Iraq. The generals George W. Bush put in charge seemed superbly fitted for the job. John Abizaid had plentiful experience in the Middle East and was fluent in Arabic. George Casey had extensive experience and great talents.
But they failed to produce a winning strategy. And by the time David Petraeus, an expert on counterinsurgency, did, the media and the public weren’t much interested in Iraq anymore.
Or consider financial regulation. Bush appointed, and Barack Obama retained, Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve. It is generally agreed that Bernanke knows more about the depression of the 1930s than anyone else on earth.
At Treasury, Bush and Obama also installed experts. Henry Paulson had been CEO of Goldman Sachs, the most successful investment bank. Timothy Geithner had headed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s hard to conceive of any other two other individuals who knew more about finance and Wall Street.
Yet it’s plain in retrospect that they made serious mistakes. They erred either in bailing out Bear Stearns in March 2008 (my view) or in declining to bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
Amid the financial turmoil after Lehman collapsed, it was clear that even these experts didn’t know what to do. They oscillated from one policy to another, making it up as they went along. Not all their decisions were wrong, but the current economic recovery is agonizingly sluggish.
You can certainly argue that Iraq and the financial crisis posed unique and unprecedented challenges. It was probably impossible to get everything right. But the fact is that people we had every reason to regard as the greatest experts failed to get anything close to optimal results.
In that context, it’s easier to see why voters seem to have little respect for expertise.
In the 2008 electoral cycle, Democratic primary voters, caucus-goers, and super-delegates chose a candidate with minimal experience in either foreign or domestic policy and no executive experience at all. But Barack Obama seemed to have other strengths. In the financial crisis, he was no more than a helpful bystander. But he zoomed ahead of John McCain in the polls and was elected.
Now Republicans are zooming from one low-expertise candidate to another. Bachmann has never run anything but a small business. Cain ran a pizza company and lost an election for senator. Perry showed little interest in national issues in his first ten years as governor of Texas.
Romney’s years in private equity and one term as governor of Massachusetts give him an edge in expertise over the present field. But his experience is thin next to contenders in the past.
It’s off-putting to watch what a low value voters put on expertise. But that’s what happens when experts blow it time and again.