I was watching CNN this morning (I know that I shouldn’t, but I wasn’t able to resist) and they interviewed a guy at a bar in Detroit as part of a “let Americans vent about how much they hate their elected officials” segment. Upwards of 90% of the people who appear in these segments say nothing more than, to paraphrase, “I’m mad! They suck! Get them out!”–which is exactly the type of blind anger that produces political deadlock. Anyway, this one guy that they interviewed placed the blame for the difficulties of the American political process at the feet of “career politicians”.
This is a popular idea, but it isn’t true, not in its entirety. I have railed against the entire Tory frontbench (or much of it) being Oxford graduates who studied PPE, but that is more about social class. If politicians start out as regular folks (read: they don’t go to Eton), they can maintain connections to people and understand what the government can do to help solve local and national problems.
We need politicians who know about government, public policy, politics, and economics. Not everyone understands these areas–in fact, most people don’t. But some people need to. The difference between a legislator who understands macroeconomic principles and one who does not is pretty important: it’s the difference between someone who will not let the United States default on its debt and trigger a global economic crisis, and someone who has no understanding of what default even means. Expertise matters. Knowledge matters.
In fact, I’d argue that a lot of our current problems are due to the exact opposite cause: too few career politicians. Legislators with many years of experience will be better negotiators (on average) and more likely to put practicality over principle. People who enter politics with little or no understanding of the four areas of knowledge I mentioned above, no experience in political negotiations, and who are absolutely committed to a set of principles make terrible politicians. Great campaigners, but terrible legislators. We should look for legislators with a mix of experience in public service and outside of it, whether that be in academia, non-profits, or the private sector–make sure that they know life outside of politics. But politicians have to understand how politics works in order to govern effectively.