Opinion | Competence Is Critical for Democracy. Let’s Redefine It.

In the last month, the Delta variant has driven up the number of new Covid cases by tens of thousands, thrown America’s pandemic response back into chaos and jeopardized the nation’s fragile economic recovery. In light of this, you might think that all of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — could at least agree on one thing: a well-functioning democratic society requires, at a bare minimum, public officials competent enough to tackle the numerous challenges we face.

Today, however, the very idea of competence is being called into question. Claims of competence and associated concepts — expertise, authority, knowledge and experience among them — are increasingly viewed on both sides of the political spectrum as covert attempts to advance self-interested political agendas.

A shared notion of competence is essential to democracy. If we want to save “competence” from being tossed into history’s dustbin, we need to understand why many Americans mistrust claims of competence. And to build back public confidence in competence, we need to understand the term in its broadest and most robust sense, encompassing not only skill and efficacy, but also judgment, humility and empathy.

On the right, the attack on competence arises in part out of deep-rooted populist and nationalist mistrust of “elites,” “globalists” and “cosmopolitans,” who are viewed as cynically selling out ordinary (read: white and rural) Americans in exchange for profit. Such views often translate into a broad right-wing suspicion of all claims of competence, knowledge and experience. For instance: Scientists say there’s evidence of catastrophic, human-caused global warming? Those overeducated products of elite liberal universities just want to take jobs away from hard-working Americans by destroying the fossil fuel industry.

On the left, some progressives are often equally suspicious of claims of competence, knowledge and expertise, which they tend to see as thinly disguised efforts to maintain unjust existing power structures (“privilege”) that devalue or exclude people of color, women, immigrants and the poor. The mildest version of this is a mistrust of “merit”: Don’t standardized tests such as the SAT merely operate to keep disadvantaged children out of elite colleges, for example, even as they purport to be neutral measures of knowledge and skills?

It’s easy to caricature the extreme examples of distrust found on both sides of the political spectrum. As a case in point, for some people on the right, the career Justice Department officials and experienced judges who found no evidence of sweeping voting fraud in the 2020 election were part of a vast deep-state conspiracy; for some people on the left, there’s the claim that mathematics, logic and other fields of knowledge are themselves “racist” as conceptualized, taught or applied.

But despite their occasional descent into a kind of nihilistic paranoia, those who are skeptical about claims of competence, expertise and authority make some valid points. Assertions of competence, narrowly understood, are sometimes deployed as a smoke screen to divert our attention away from deeper issues of justice and morality.

Elites — both the liberal cosmopolitan “deep staters” who enrage Republicans and the enablers of white or male “privilege” who draw the ire of progressive Democrats — do, in fact, often use claims of competence to distract us from focusing on abusive or corrupt behavior (think Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who used his reputation for competence — burnished during the Covid pandemic’s early months — to brush off and belittle those who criticized his bullying and serial harassment of female staff members). Elites of all political stripes also excel at finding creative ways to assert that partisan or self-serving policies are, in fact, universally beneficial.

At its most basic, this is what all human beings do: We divide into groups and develop elaborate arguments justifying rules, social structures and institutions that disproportionately benefit our own group, then insist that these reflect neutral standards rather than bias. No wonder many Americans mistrust claims of competence.

And yet when it comes to competence, there’s still a there, there. Take the collapse in June of the high-rise condominium in Surfside, Fla. that killed nearly a hundred people: When it comes to building design, construction, inspection and maintenance, competence isn’t merely a self-serving myth. Either enough steel was used in the condo’s foundation, or it was not; either needed repairs were identified and made, or they were not. In the case of Surfside, there was plenty of incompetence going around, and the result was disaster.

Democracy, too, is unsustainable without competence at every level. We need citizens who understand our political system and who are capable of evaluating competing arguments, and we need leaders capable of developing and carrying out wise policies. Concretely, we also need voting machines that work, a voting system that ensures that the declared vote count reflects the votes that were cast, competent election officials who work in that system and who value professional integrity over party, and capable judges who can similarly evaluate, without partisan bias, whether the voting process was fair and accurate.

But any concept of competence that encompasses only skill and efficacy is an impoverished one, one that readily enables the kind of self-serving behavior and policy so many Americans distrust. After all, skilled and effective people can be careless, shortsighted, selfish, biased, corrupt, or sadistic — consider Mussolini and his supposed ability to “make the trains run on time.”

If we want to rescue the concept of competence from the critiques of both right and left, we need to understand it in its broadest sense, rather than its narrowest. To be worth anything in a democracy, the idea of competence also needs to encompass judgment, humility and empathy. Evaluating legal claims about voting rights, for instance, shouldn’t be a mere technical exercise; legislators, judges and other officials considering such claims need an understanding of America’s history of racial exclusion, an awareness of the limits of legal processes and a keen sense of how different rules and policies will affect other living and breathing human beings.

The concept of “competence” will always be messy and contested, and to some extent, that’s as it should be. But we can’t survive as a cohesive nation if we can’t agree on the basic premise that it is possible to know things — at least some things — with a reasonable amount of confidence, and that it is possible to get things done in a manner that we all recognize as reasonably effective.

If we give up entirely on the idea of developing a broad and shared understanding of competence or on the idea that competence matters, we might as well give up on the democratic project itself.

Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown’s law school, is the author of “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.”

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