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BERNSTEIN: McConnell's impeachment decision damages public trust in experts

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) unabashed support of former President Donald J. Trump in his latest impeachment trial reduces popular trust in legal experts and increases the potency of partisan politics.  – Photo by Wikimedia.org

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted to acquit former President Donald J. Trump on charges of inciting insurrection, he emphasized that his decision was not based on the former president's guilt or innocence, but his interpretation of the purpose of impeachment.

He did so in spite of the fact that constitutional law scholars overwhelmingly agreed that a president need not currently hold office to be impeached and convicted, and against the fact that the Senate had already voted in favor of the constitutionality of the impeachment.

I had no illusions about how a top Republican like McConnell would vote on this matter. But I would have preferred if he had not torched the credibility of legal experts and their scholarship in the process.

Expertise is a tricky matter. The majority of systems that operate within the confines of society rely on public trust in educated and knowledgeable authorities. The healthcare system only functions so long as people trust doctors' opinions on medicine more than they trust their own.

Governmental systems only function so long as people trust lawmakers and law enforcers to abide by a consistent set of rules, to implement impartial justice and to have a better knack for making informed legislative decisions than the average citizen.

But while only a fool would write off science and history for their own misbegotten opinions, we cannot forget that the vanguards of these fields are nonetheless fallible humans like the rest of us. I will always defer to the surgeon in the room for the task of removing a tumor or replacing a knee, but I have seen enough physicians botch a diagnosis to understand the value of a second opinion. 

Furthermore, it is not always clear that one's implied qualifications align with their actual skillset: Are the majority of politicians actually better problem-solvers than their constituents, or are they just better orators? Does knowledge of how governments have operated in the past translate into a knowledge of how governments ought to operate in the future? 

Some fields, of course, are more vulnerable to those who would abuse or overextend their expertise than others. I have a deep love for the discipline of philosophy, but it frustrates me to no end how far a charismatic provocateur with a large vocabulary can go in masquerading as a great thinker.

The tolerance for ambiguity and interpretation inherent in the humanities, while it gives them rich texture, requires that we remain evermore diligent and skeptical in the face of a potential grift and that we uphold some level of consistency in matters where consistency is essential –– such as law.

And so we have returned to the question of McConnell. In a time when a distaste for experts and "elitism" runs rampant, when vaccine-making biologists and doomsaying climatologists and information-disseminating journalists need all the public trust they can muster, one of the country's most powerful politicians has spit on the expertise of legal scholars, scholars whose careers revolve around their understanding of America's fundamental documents. 

Make no mistake, when an authority of McConnell's stature dismisses the truth, he aids and abets its erasure. He exorcises the good faith which animates our country's otherwise inert texts. Most unsettlingly, he gladly demonstrates his own office and reputation to be arbitrary. He is not a senator because he understands the reality of the law –– he creates the reality of the law because he is a senator.

An informed public must walk a fine line. They must respect and trust the experts who preside over important information too complex to be understood in passing, and at the same time they must maintain a level of skepticism and critical thought necessary to cut through false and malevolent authorities.

By flouting more than a century of legal precedent, senators like McConnell have made both sides of this line thinner: They have both undermined the good name of legitimate authorities and discouraged their constituents from thinking critically about a system too capricious to warrant a measured opinion.

If we want to restore faith in our experts –– if we want to restore faith in our science, in our morals, in our laws and in our ideas –– then we need leaders who do not treat the truth like their own personal sandbox.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore looking to major in cell biology and neuroscience and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Mondays. 


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