Is professionalism the antidote to populism?


The perils of populism and political ignorance can be mitigated by empowering parties, career politicians and professional experts to act as “intermediaries” in order to constrain and channel public opinion, Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch argue in a new paper for the Brookings Institution.

“In complex policy spaces,” the authors write, “properly designed intermediary institutions can act more decisively and responsively on behalf of the public than an army of ‘the people’ could do on its own behalf, [and are] less likely to be paralyzed by factional disputes and distorted by special-interest manipulation.”

The literature on voter ignorance is one of the oldest, best established, and most dismaying in all of political science, they add:

Every so often, journalists and commentators dip into it and emerged “terrified.” In recent years, however, a wave of research has shown ignorance and irrationality to be even bigger problems than previously believed, and has cast new doubt on standard remedies. Neither theory nor practice supports the idea that more participation will produce better policy outcomes, or will improve the public’s approbation of government, or is even attainable in an environment dominated by extreme partisans and narrow interest groups….

The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, also worried about the level of political literacy.

“We can’t have an intelligent foreign policy unless we have an intelligent public, because we’re a democracy,” Brzezinski said. “We don’t have a public that really understands the world anymore and in the age of complexity, that problem becomes much more difficult.”

But, Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, is not convinced that empowering political professionals is the best way to counter voter ignorance. “Far from offsetting public ignorance, professional politicians often have strong incentives to exploit it,” he writes for The Washington Post, adding that populist insurgents may have taken the manipulation of political ignorance to new heights:

But their tactics differ more in degree than kind from those of conventional politicians. …Perhaps insulation from the democratic process can incentivize political professionals to abjure the manipulation of ignorance. But that in turn raises the difficult issue of how to keep them from serving their own interests or those of powerful pressure groups at the expense of the public. Moreover, politically insulated experts face serious knowledge limitations of their own.


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