Why Americans Are Skeptical of Government Experts

Many years ago, I made a series of presentations at Harvard University. One moment I will never forget came over lunch when a professor asked me why the American people didn’t trust them to lead. After all, she said, that’s what people at the Kennedy School of Government were trained to do.

I was stunned by the question. We live in a nation founded on the premise that governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed. The notion that the people should follow the elites is a fundamental rejection of our founding ideals. Besides, I have great faith in the commonsense wisdom of the American people.

Since that long ago lunch, I’ve heard echoes of that professor’s question in many public policy debates. Polling conducted early in the year found that 66% of voters had recently engaged in activities officially discouraged by the CDC. That reality frustrated many public health officials, governors, and mayors. The same dynamic can be found on issue after issue.

In a poll last week, I asked 1,200 Registered Voters what should be done when government experts and intellectuals recommended a policy that voters strongly opposed. Just 19% say that the government should follow the policy recommended by experts and intellectuals. Sixty-one percent (61%) took the opposite view.

Why does this happen?

Partly it’s because the elites and everyday Americans have different perceptions of how experts operate. The elitist perspective is that government experts are strictly guided by knowledge rather than by any personal agenda. In this self-serving view, the experts consider the facts and make the logical conclusion.

However, just 25% of voters believe government experts make policy recommendations based primarily on their professional expertise. A solid majority—55%– believe the policy recommendations made by experts are based upon the experts’ own political preferences.

In other words, voters think that experts often abuse their authority to get the results they want. A vivid current example of this distrust can be found in the possibility that the coronavirus was created in a Wuhan, China laboratory. Not only do most voters think that’s likely, 57% think it’s likely that U.S. government officials actively tried to cover-up the lab-leak theory.

Having grown up in a world skeptical of experts promoting their own agendas, none of this surprised me. But one result from last week’s poll was truly shocking.

I asked voters whether certain activities were a major threat to democracy in the United States. One of the options was “letting government bureaucrats set rules without approval of Congress or voters.” Fifty-five percent (55%) said that practice was, in fact, a major threat. That view is shared by 73% of Republicans, 43% of Democrats, and 40% of Independents.

To put that into perspective, a smaller number (45%) believe the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was a major threat to democracy. While Democrats overwhelmingly see the events of January 6 in that light, Republicans and Independents are more likely to consider rule by bureaucrats as a major threat.

That perspective may also help explain why just 34% of voters believe the federal government today supports the founding ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance.

Note: Neither Scott Rasmussen, ScottRasmussen.com, nor RMG Research, Inc. have any affiliation with Rasmussen Reports. While Scott Rasmussen founded that firm, he left more than seven years ago and has had no involvement since that time.