Talking Points

Americans don't trust experts or populists. What's left?

Just two years ago, populists were riding high. In the U.S., U.K., several European countries, and parts of Asia, leaders and parties who appealed to ordinary people against an allegedly or actually corrupt elite were securely in office or making electoral gains. Some scholars even predicted the emergence of a global populist movement that might provide a coordinated alternative to the so-called liberal international order. 

Then came COVID. At their strongest on issues that combine economic interests with cultural identity, particularly trade and immigration, populists faced unexpected challenges in the pandemic. Denunciations of the medical establishment, defiant personal conduct, and sometimes bizarre conspiracy theories played well with base supporters. But they frightened and alienated much of the broader public.

You might expect that waning support for populism would be accompanied by enthusiasm for liberal democracy, but according to a new study by social scientists at the University of Cambridge, that's not what's happened. Instead, the researchers found growing support around the world for rule by a strong leader and less commitment to civil liberties including freedom of speech.

In some places, these trends point toward a certain kind of deference. According to the report, more than 60 percent of Western European respondents want experts rather than government to make important decisions. That preference is reflected elsewhere, too: According to recent polls, Italy's Mario Draghi, a technocrat who has largely deferred to public health authorities, is among the most popular national leaders in the Western world. 

The United States is different, though. While Europeans have turned toward experts, Americans' support for expert authority has significantly declined since 2020. Paradoxically, Americans are also less supportive of a strong leader and more likely to say that democracy is a bad system of government. We're not dissatisfied with the status quo compared to a specific alternative. We're just dissatisfied.

That sentiment helps explain President Biden's struggles as his administration enters its second year. Rather than providing a stable mandate, the same wave of anger and disappointment that brought him a narrow victory in 2020 is now undermining his own administration. If both he and former President Donald Trump run again in 2024, as seems likely, Americans may be faced with an unsatisfying choice between two unpopular figures who appeal primarily to fear and loathing of their opponents. That would only make our continuing legitimacy crisis worse.