Why Are Voters Ignoring Experts?

PARIS – By the time British citizens went to the polls on June 23 to decide on their country’s continued membership in the European Union, there had been no shortage of advice in favor of remaining. Foreign leaders and moral authorities had voiced unambiguous concern about the consequences of an exit, and economists had overwhelmingly warned that leaving the EU would entail significant economic costs.

Yet the warnings were ignored. A pre-referendum YouGov opinion poll tells why: “Leave” voters had no trust whatsoever in the advice-givers. They did not want their judgment to rely on politicians, academics, journalists, international organizations, or think tanks. As one of the Leave campaign’s leaders, justice secretary Michael Gove, who is now seeking to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister, bluntly put it: “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

It is tempting to dismiss this attitude as a triumph of passion over rationality. Yet the pattern seen in the UK is oddly familiar: in the United States, Republican voters disregarded the pundits and nominated Donald Trump as their party’s presidential candidate; in France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, elicits little sympathy among experts, but has strong popular support. Everywhere, a significant number of citizens have become hostile to the cognoscenti.

Why this angry attitude toward the bearers of knowledge and expertise? The first explanation is that many voters attach little value to the opinions of those who failed to warn them about the risk of a financial crisis in 2008. Queen Elizabeth II spoke for many when, on a visit to the London School of Economics in the autumn of 2008, she asked why no one saw it coming. Furthermore, the suspicion that economists have been captured by the financial industry, expressed in the 2010 movie Inside Job, has not been dispelled. Ordinary people feel angry about what they regard as a betrayal by the intellectuals.