Don’t Listen to the Millennials: We Need Career Politicians

This year I’ve heard the following statement frequently said:

I don’t want to vote for a career politician (emphasis of disgust on “career politician”)

At first I nodded in agreement when I heard this resentment towards politicians. In the back of my mind were statistics proving congress is more polarized than ever before, and other cynical measures of America’s state of political affairs. But as I thought about it more, I realized there was something irrational about this line of thinking.

The current resentment towards the political profession — popular in my generation especially — is deeply unfounded. “Politicophobiacs” ignore the fact that some of America’s most productive and progressive presidents were career politicians. They fail to consider that politics is a profession, like any other, that requires skill, practice and knowledge of theory. And most troubling, the resentment funnels energy and focus away from the more important issues that need to be resolved in Washington.

A history of career politicians

44 Presidents have been elected in America’s history. Only 6 have done so without any prior experience in elected office — one of which was George Washington who had no elected office to run for prior to his first election. The other five presidents lead various divisions of the military. To say that America has a history of career politicians in the White House is an understatement.

The Politicophobiacs will tell you that this is the issue. But history and data suggest some of our best presidents were career politicians.

To answer the question, “Who was the best president of all time?” is of course a difficult task. The answer is ridden with bias and subjectivity. But that hasn’t stopped pollsters from searching for the data. Between 2008–2011 four research firms polled presidential historians on this question. And in 2013 Nate Silver averaged the results and published them to the New York Times blog:

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  3. George Washington
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Thomas Jefferson
  6. Harry Truman
  7. Woodrow Wilson
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  9. John F. Kennedy
  10. Ronald Reagan
  11. James K. Polk
  12. Lyndon B. Johnson
  13. Andrew Jackson
  14. James Monroe
  15. James Madison
  16. John Adams
  17. Barack Obama
  18. Bill Clinton
  19. William McKinley
  20. John Quincy Adams
  21. Grover Cleveland
  22. George H.W. Bush
  23. Ulysses S. Grant
  24. Gerald Ford
  25. William Howard Taft
  26. Jimmy Carter
  27. Calvin Coolidge
  28. Chester A. Arthur
  29. Richard Nixon
  30. James A. Garfield
  31. Martin Van Buren
  32. Rutherford B. Hayes
  33. Zachary Taylor
  34. Benjamin Harrison
  35. Herbert Hoover
  36. John Tyler
  37. Millard Fillmore
  38. George W. Bush
  39. Andrew Johnson
  40. William Henry Harrison
  41. Warren G. Harding
  42. Franklin Pierce
  43. James Buchanan

The five best presidents in this ranking system — Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Jefferson, and Roosevelt — averaged 30 years in politics throughout their lives. George Washington — again the outlier, for obvious reasons — was in politics for the shortest amount of time (8 years officially, before retiring after his second term). Jefferson holds the top spot with 40 years of political experience.

Career politicians have not only been prominent throughout American politics. They’ve been successful, and some of the most politically productive.

A profession like any other

In Politicophobiac logic there’s an underlying argument that politics is not a profession. Rather, it is something that every citizen can take up at a whim. But while every citizen born in America has the legal right to run for public office, not everyone has the skills or merits required to succeed in the political sphere.

Overconfidence is a well-establish human bias, and politics is one such display of this human ineptitude. Researchers have consistently proven that humans subjective confidence in their judgement is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgments. Put simply, humans think they are smarter than they actually are. My hypothesis is that this extends to confidence in presidential candidates and their ability to govern.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman introduced a concept called “What You See Is What There Is” (WYSIATI). He proved that when the mind makes decisions, it deals primarily with Known Knowns, phenomena it has already observed. The mind, Kahneman wrote, rarely considers Known Unknowns, phenomena that it knows to be relevant but about which it has no information or experience. And it appears oblivious to the possibility of Unknown Unknowns, unknown phenomena of unknown relevance. Humans fail to take into account complexity and the fact that their understanding of the world consists of a small and necessarily un-representative set of observations.

It’s unlikely that a digital marketing manager in Denver understands the effects of wheat prices in India on the US economy. Specialization of labor solves this problem. She doesn’t have to know about those effects, whilst a congressmen on the subcommittee for international trade does. Americans elect public officials to specialize in fields ranging from the tedious, like corporate tax policy, to the highly complex, like foreign relations in the Middle East. These fields require years of study, experience, and — more than likely — mistakes, which we should be more empathetic towards before criticizing. The most important issues in politics require more than intuition and a savvy business mind.

The wrong scapegoat

Besides being illogical, the argument to remove career politicians from Washington is harmful. For every breath and primetime news hour wasted on this argument, Americans’ attention is diverted from more pressing issues that, if solved, have the potential to make a larger impact.

Today, politicians are heavily influenced by special interest groups like the NRA. This is one of the main contributing factors in America’s inability to properly regulate guns as other developed countries have. This is a problem.

Campaign spending has risen dramatically in recent years and threatens the integrity of America’s democracy. This is a problem.

Congress is in a constant state of gridlock because of partisanship unlike any other period in American history. This is a problem.

Career politicians? Not so much.

Replacing political professionals with business leaders and people that “know how to get things done” would be unprecedented and irrational. It would come with consequences many of us couldn’t predict — for the very same reasons we couldn’t predict the Financial Crisis of 2008 in the face of unknown unknowns. However unlikely ousting career politicians might be, the discussion itself is distracting from more important challenges that need voter awareness. It’s a scapegoat of our irrational creation. And it’s a waste of our attention.

Michael Thomas