Expertise in politics: boon or bane?

People protest in Rome against compulsory vaccinations. Photograph: Simona Granati/Corbis/Getty Images

Populist radical right parties and their leaders openly despise expertise: they often parade their ignorance and inexperience by developing, in electoral terms, propaganda depicting them shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary citizens (“the People”) – as distant as possible from accultured, intellectual cosmopolitan elites. Mainstream political parties have, especially in recent years, often championed recourse to unelected experts and authorities, above all during times of economic or political crisis, such as the post-2008 ‘Great Recession’. During the latter, many radical right ideologues rejected claims that the critical circumstances required management based upon technical expertise. In particular, Social-Democratic parties in EU have often delegated key policy-framing areas to “technocratic” experts agencies, authorities or bodies. It is possible to mention the “technocratic” executive led by Mario Monti in Italy during 2011-2013 and the “infamous” Troika which was in charge to manage the Greek debt crisis until few months ago. By contrast, thanks to the mainstreaming of radical right populism, questions regarding the lack of relevant expertise in politics is now fully legitimate.

Incompetence and ignorance: on the populist aversion for expertise

A few months ago, the Economist discussed the potentially dangerous consequences for public health by populist policies in Europe, focusing upon the campaign against vaccination in Italy. In particular, the Lega-M5S executive dangerously appeared to be unusually tolerant and naive in facing anti-vaccine movements, producing legislation allowing parents of schoolchildren to provide simple self-certification in relation to vaccination.

The populist aversion to know-how and expertise, of course, is not limited to public health policies. It is widespread and applies to the varying policy fields, from political economy to EU law and international treaties. Indeed, lack of competence is sometimes even proudly exhibited by radical right populists to distance themselves from the “technocratic” elites on both sides of the Atlantic. For example the US President, Donald Trump, notoriously insists on denying climate change evidence and its dramatic effects for the planet, even when these are coming from its own administration. Nor is it possible to escape from mentioning the radical right-supported (if not facilitated, depending upon where one places Nigel Farage and UKIP on the political spectrum) “Brexit” in this context. Fear of the EU law’s influence is largely misunderstood: according to rigorous studies, most critical UK policy areas (such as public order, crime, defence, health) are only minimally influenced by the EU, making the pro-leave claims unjustified, in particular that leaving the European Union would fix Britain, as suggested paradigmatically, among others, by Nigel Farage.

Expertise as bane: the case of Italy

Italy represents an interesting, even paradigmatic, case here in terms of a scenario that may also characterise other EU member states (and possibly the European Union as a whole). Let’s consider again public health policies, noting that La Lega head, Matteo Salvini, currently controls the Ministry of the Interior. With campaigns against vaccination dangerously tolerated at the institutional level, the green-yellow Italian “populist” coalition of La Lega and the Five Star Movement has raised health concerns in triggering yet another “war between the poor”, whereby “low-skilled” labour migration (especially from low-income countries) or other minorities (such as the Roma people) are increasingly perceived as drain on health resources or even a threat in terms of public health, falsely accused of spreading diseases to Italian citizens. This allegedly leads to social consequences for indigent native-born population and a burden to already suffering European welfare states. Such overheated rhetoric does not help to facilitate informed debate (such as the lack of evidence for any causal relation between migration and welfare state decay) and its use should not be overestimated.

Expertise as boon: multinational corporations and “technocracy”

This lack of expertise, as we have seen, is often used by radical right populist leaders in order to firm up nativist political support. Yet the opposite case is also revealing: the use of technical specialisation to secure dramatic influence in policy-making, in particular by powerful actors like multinational corporations. If lobbying and advocacy are standard “tools” used to acquire influence in policy framing, superiority in terms of expertise grants multinational corporations a form of “implicit lobbying” power. Indeed the private sector, in light of its own nature and structure, possesses especial and capitalised expertise, scientific knowledge and information. These can have a direct impact upon the public sector, even for the most technocratic public authorities (think of private internet platforms across the various European states). Simply in light of the asymmetry of expertise, the private sector can easily manipulate the policy-framing process in its interest (as can be particularly seen in the Brussels). The widespread malaise dynamics regarding possible manipulation was rightly understood by the radical right in Europe, however the answers appear produced so far against technical expertise in politics, were not appropriate nor legitimate.

Conclusion: expertise as a double-edged sword?

Expertise may be considered a “double-edged sword”: it can be lambasted by radical right ideologues in the interest of gaining political support but on the contrary, but is also key in domestic policy-making. Currently, technical expertise in specific fields is crucial in facing the challenges deriving from a globalized world, with disruptive technological innovation, climate crises and systemic complexity. This expertise is often provided by the private sector in public policy-framing. However, the strong asymmetric distribution of intellectual resources leads, in the long term, to positions of influence that can be extremely dangerous within democratic political systems (such as the Cambridge Analytics case reminds us). As Sir Francis Bacon maintained: Scientia Potentia est. On the other hand, we are witnessing a very peculiar political trend, one going completely in the other direction: in such a complex world, populist movements (most notably radical right-wing parties) are increasingly popular precisely on account of their aversion to expertise and know-how. On the whole they prefer, instead, to depict political reality in a hyper-simplified, black or white, fashion. In this case, we should perhaps re-frame Bacon’s famous quote in: Ignorantia Potentia est.

Dr Valerio Alfonso Bruno is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Researcher at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). See his profile here.

© Valerio Alfonso Bruno. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).