How Conservatives Waged a War on Expertise

Donald Trump rooted his antiestablishment campaign in an attack on government, political parties, and the media. As president, he has escalated ...
Bill O'Reilly interviews former President George W. Bush, November 2010

Donald Trump rooted his antiestablishment campaign in an attack on government, political parties, and the media. As president, he has now escalated this campaign criticism into a self-proclaimed war. During his first month in office, his administration openly characterized the media as an “oppositional party.”1 Spouting a conspiracy theory of voter fraud, Trump has promised an investigation into an issue declared by state and local voting entities as well as a range of scholars to be nonexistent.2 And, in one of his most controversial actions, he called into question the authority of a “so-called” federal appellate judge who challenged his ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations.3

Trump’s aggression has lit conflicts between the president, his party, and the very structures of government he now leads. Trump is not, however, the architect of this adversarial approach. Instead, his political ascendancy is a product of a conservative campaign to undermine trusted institutions and create an alternative system of knowledge about how government operates.

Over 50 years ago, conservative elites began harnessing and deploying political power outside electoral politics. Business owners, media activists, and intellectuals developed new sources of authority to challenge trust in mainstream media, universities, political parties, even the government itself. Conservatives’ alternative organizations slowly undermined the legitimacy of legacy institutions and, with it, Americans’ confidence in them.

In the process, they rewrote accepted truths and expectations for how government should function. In creating these new sources of authority, elite funders both bolstered their business and maintained control of their message. Until now.

In Messengers of the Right, Nicole Hemmer presents a captivating exploration of the first generation of media activists who used their networks and communication skills—developed at publishing houses and magazines, in radio and television—to forge a movement. These men came from positions of privilege. Their backgrounds ranged from academic administration to successful businesses to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But they were bound together as ideological outsiders in their commitment to libertarian principles, as well as their opposition to Cold War intervention and the growth of the federal government.

As a result, they were “on the losing side of politics” in the postwar era. Why?, asked publisher and organizer Henry Regnery, when he convened a meeting of the brightest conservative minds in 1953. Because, he explained, “the left controlled institutions: the media, the universities, the foreign policy establishment.”

In their quest for political clout, these activists developed their own platforms to disseminate perspectives that had been silenced by these institutions. They created a range of products—journals, books, radio, and then television shows—to reach the public. The goal: to challenge the “reigning intellectual orthodoxy,” which celebrated the positive role of a technocratic state and an interventionist government at home and abroad.

Struggling to find a voice in a media landscape hostile to their opinions, these media activists “created a space where ‘bias’ was an appropriate journalistic value.” Driven by their conservatism, they believed in ideological purity rather than the notion of objectivity. In fact, the prominent newsweekly Human Events openly celebrated this difference. Its mission statement proudly proclaimed that it would look at “events through the eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.”

By popularizing their message to readers, listeners, and viewers across the country, these elite media figures made the consumption of conservative media messages into a form of political activism. As a result, the growth of conservatism resulted in the development of a lucrative business model, one based on the conviction that ideological purity superseded expertise and facts from mainstream institutions.

But promulgating the conservative message was not enough. Media activists also discredited the authority of the media, political parties, government, and universities. As a result, consumers looked for information within this tight-knit network of media activists, who ultimately created a new definition of knowledge itself.

Think tanks soon followed a similar strategy. In his book Right Moves, Jason Stahl examines how conservative activists also challenged the pervasive power of liberal intellectuals in postwar policy circles. Celebrated for its nonpartisanship and objectivity, research from the Brookings Institute or the Ford Foundation filled academic journals. It also reverberated in Washington, DC, and fostered a cultural belief in the power of a technocratic expertise in government.

Policymakers from both sides of the aisle depended on this research to pursue postwar objectives: Keynsian economic policies, Cold War interventions abroad, and addressing social problems through elites in government. President Lyndon Johnson regarded the knowledge of scholars from Brookings and Ford as “indispensable.”

Conservative activists developed their own platforms to disseminate their perspectives, making the consumption of conservative media messages into a form of political activism.

As in the media, challenging the “intellectual monopoly” of the liberal consensus required establishing alternative institutions to produce knowledge. The American Enterprise Institute, and later the Heritage Foundation, critiqued the very concept of “objective expertise.” These conservative scholars argued that “biases were positive attributes that were more important than ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’ in that they would balance a marketplace of ideas that had been dominated by liberals and their ideas.”

During the 1970s, these conservative think tanks transformed the public debate about policy research. Rather than focus on scholarly rigor, policy discussions would emphasize ideological balance. As a result, the war of ideas became a public relations battle of what sold rather than a scholarly analysis of what worked.

Media activists and think tanks challenged accepted truths about government. And they were not alone.

Jefferson Decker’s The Other Rights Revolution excavates the role of conservative legal activists in transforming debates about the function of the government itself. The postwar period saw a quest for rights and protections—from minorities seeking federal legislation to combat segregation and white supremacy to environmental activists pushing for national regulation of industrial pollution and land abuses. The federal government became a powerful protector of the public interest to shield against discrimination and the excesses of the marketplace. But, as Decker charts, conservative lawyers responded by challenging, in court, this belief about the social regulatory state as a positive function.

Organizations like the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Mountain States Foundation used public interest advocacy cases to change legal definitions of regulation. Rather than government serving as a protector of the public interest, these lawyers argued that it oppressed individual freedoms with Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, for example.

Rather than criticizing the civil rights revolution for an overreach of judicial authority, conservative lawyers changed the narrative. By the 1980s, they had established a different version of the rights revolution in the courts—one that advocated for the economic rights of businesses and individuals against the regulatory state. Lawyers from the West and Midwest “redefine[d] the concept of ‘civil rights’ for a new politically conservative era” and transformed the Justice Department into a “litigator and advocate.”

This conservative judicial activism changed the function of the courts and, like think tanks, celebrated the place of market-based solutions. By offering legal avenues to sue the state for regulations that cost businesses money, conservative lawyers used the language of rights to protect against the expansion of the state and to simply make the regulations “too expensive to be practical.”

As in media and think tanks, those with economic resources but without political power mobilized on behalf of the “public interest.” Conservative institutions lowered the barrier for entrance into the political arena (for lawyers, researchers, writers, and publishers). But the parameters of the political debate were created and funded by wealthy men running these institutions. Though proclaiming “populism,” elites continued to serve as the gatekeepers.

Moreover, activists rooted the conservative movement in institutions that stood opposed to government. Transforming cultural attitudes against the state, however, made governing difficult when these critics actually won public office and faced the cynical electorate they helped to create.

For example, Ronald Reagan and his team took advantage of these conservative achievements to mobilize voters to win the presidency and then to staff his administration. But, as Jason Stahl argues, policy advisors had a “felt sense of policy” rather than a “technocratic view of policy.” As a result, policy issues shifted from tools to solve public problems to “tribal markers” that now fragment today’s population.

After Reagan took office, conservative media outlets like Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest soon closed. Nicole Hemmer notes that as the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the Moral Majority shut their doors, it became clear: “Only versed in the language of opposition, the New Right failed to find a way to navigate conservative success.”

The fingerprints of these institutions are all over our contemporary landscape. “Balance” outweighs journalistic or academic rigor in media coverage and policy debates. The ramifications: a public discourse in which oppositional narratives dominate at the expense of collaboration.

The economic celebration of the free market has transformed the democratic process by defining the public interest by marketplace success. Conflicting frameworks that generate headlines and boost ratings have exacerbated political polarization and made government less effective. A liberal-versus-conservative interpretation of politics has limited parameters for political debate and policy options. As a result, political power now relies on institutions that can disseminate specific narratives about the function (or malfunction) of government.

The distrust in expertise that exploded in the 2016 campaign is rooted in 50 years of conservative institution building, during which conservative ideology—in media, in legal battles, and in think tanks—trumped facts. The result is Donald Trump—a political figure who dismisses expertise and ideology. Organizations like the National Review tried to stop Trump for this indiscretion, declaring him “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”4 Trump’s electoral success demonstrated to conservative leaders that they could no longer control the whims of the distrusting political consumers they created.

Moreover, the chaos of Trump’s presidency has further exposed the problem of building an administration on a sales pitch of how government does not work, rather than on an understanding of how it can. icon

  1. See, for example: Jordan Fabian, “Trump Blasts Media as ‘Opposition Party,’The Hill, January 27, 2017.
  2. Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker, “After His Claim of Voter Fraud, Trump Vows ‘Major Investigation,’” New York Times, January 25, 2017. For scholarship that argues that voter fraud is a myth, see: Lorrain C. Minnite, The Myth of Voter Fraud (Cornell University Press, 2010).
  3. Amy B. Wang, “Trump Lashes Out at a ‘So Called Judge’ Who Temporarily Blocked Travel Ban,” Washington Post, February 4, 2017.
  4. National Review, “Against Trump,” January 21, 2016.
Featured image: Bill O’Reilly interviews former president George W. Bush, November 2010. Photograph by US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons