08 September 2011

In defense of career politicians

Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, has gotten sick and tired of aspiring politicians railing against "career politicians." She finds it absurd for former governor Romney and former governor Palin to criticize rivals like Governor Perry while disparaging experience in government. In a column this week she tries to refute some of the arguments against career politicians without looking like an elitist. Some of her arguments have the ring of common sense, but the arguments against career politicians aren't really grounded in common sense.

Imagine this line of argument applied to another job. “Unlike my competition, I haven’t spent my life in the oil industry,” an aspirant to the chief executive post at Exxon Mobil announces. “I’m no career retailer,” crows a would-be Wal-Mart head.

This line of argument won't convince anyone who doesn't believe that politics is the same sort of vocation as business. The distrust of career politicians is grounded in a persistent belief that politics is an exception to and, on some level, an imposition on normal life that should ideally be done without. On that assumption, experience and expertise as a politician or bureaucrat is not equivalent to expertise as a manager or salesman. Even among people with a more positive view of politics, political careerism is suspect because it implies self-interest on the part of the career politician. From a small-r republican standpoint, careerism compromises public service if the career politician is presumed to pursue politics in order to enrich himself, even if only by collecting a salary. From a capital-R Republican standpoint, the career politician is suspected of encouraging and perpetuating dependence on government so that he or she will have a steady income. In nearly every other profession the careerist is expected to want to make money, but we seem to want to make statesmanship an exception. Self-interest is a danger in any responsible position, but only from politicians is selflessness demanded.

Marcus is careful not to claim that career politicians have unique or exclusive qualifications for government. She calls for a broader "mixture of experiences and backgrounds" in government, and insists that "politics isn't rocket science." On the other hand, with Publius (James Madison in this case) as her authority, she asserts that politics requires "a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” In her opinion, Madison's requirement of "knowledge" refutes the "romantic" longing for "Cincinnati," citizens who enter politics when needed, but return to private life when their immediate work is done. "A government composed entirely of Cincinnati would be dangerously ineffective," she writes. I'm not sure if Madison would agree. The question is: what kind of knowledge is needed to govern, and how easily can it be acquired? Any American of the Founding generation would presume that such knowledge was as much within the reach of the American Cincinnatus, George Washington, as within the reach of Madison or any other "career politician" of his time. On the other hand, they would not concede that such knowledge was within the reach of everyone. Their ideal was for people to nominate recognized leaders of proven talent, for whom a capacity for statesmanship was implicit. The question updated is: does statesmanship as the Founders envisioned it require specialized training and a career commitment to politics and electioneering, or is it within the capabilities of anyone with, say, a master's degree in a practical field of knowledge?

A related question is whether Americans today recognize statesmanship as a specific virtue, a branch of knowledge, or anything at all? The distrust of politics that fuels distrust of career politicians seems to imply distrust of the very idea of statesmanship to the extent that the term stands for government or, worse, rulership. Democracy, however, and even democratic republicanism would seem to require a certain degree of statesmanship from every American citizen. Perhaps we should all be career politicians if that's understood to mean a lifelong vigilant commitment to the public good. Many of us seem to think that we can have some sort of democracy without politics, or at least the "spontaneous order" of commerce, but the opposite is more likely true. Those who fear career politicians should ask themselves what they have done or can do to make them unnecessary. Otherwise their resentment is a mere avoidance of shame.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. A Mobil-Exxon or Walmart employee isn't up for election every 4 years. If they pass the initial interview and get hired, they can expect to have a job as long as they perform up to expectations. So to an extent, politics is different from any other job.

Although I'm pretty sure the founding fathers didn't expect that politics would become a career for anyone. But then, society has changed, the needs of the country has changed.

I, personally, have nothing against the idea of a career politician. I do believe they should be held to account for their execution of their job however. The problem, I think, isn't so much with "career" politicians as it is with the unions we call political parties who protect the jobs of those unfit for office.