Outsiders on the Inside: The Puzzle of American Democracy

Outsiders on the Inside: The Puzzle of American Democracy

Democracy in the United States is a puzzle.

One generally fashions a government in order to achieve certain common purposes, like national defense, domestic tranquility, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty (to refer to our own founding document).  Sometimes these purposes are narrowly construed, and the range of government action is correspondingly narrow. Sometimes these purposes are seen in more expansive terms, and the powers of government are expanded accordingly.

These are important purposes. One might think that one would want to bring in professionals to lead and manage the efforts to accomplish such purposes. This, in turn, would suggest assembling an experienced and knowledgeable selection committee to review the resumes, interview the candidates and their references, and make a hiring recommendation to be reviewed, in turn, by a board of directors, itself experienced and knowledgeable.

Bureaucratic authoritarian governments approximate some of this. Through an expectation that those who aspire to leadership will serve in a variety of capacities in the organization before elevation to positions of great responsibility, they vet their future leaders. Mexico used to have such a system when it was a nominally democratic one-party state under the PRI. China today has such a system. The old Soviet Union did, too. People rose through hard work and competence, as well as political backscratching, old-fashioned family and ethnic networks, and personal vendettas and obligations. Not a flawless system, but one that “worked,” in some important senses, for some of these countries, for some period of time.

Strong parliamentary democracies, like most of Europe, have a variation of this system. The “shadow governments” the major parties maintain when out of power ensure that there are experienced individuals ready to assume responsibility the day the voters decide to change horses. Positions of power in these shadow governments are acquired by the same combination of hard work, competence, political backscratching and vendettas that characterize the more authoritarian bureaucratic states.

What’s different is that, in addition to all of that competence and political infighting, these democracies value the ability of a prospective leader to rally the activists and appeal to the undecided. They value, in other words, their ability to please and inspire the people.

Here in the United States, we’ve thrown nearly all of that bureaucratic and professional vetting to the wind, at least when it comes to the election of chief executives (the president, governors and mayors), the U.S. Senate and many state legislatures. We love the outsider, whether it’s someone from “outside the Beltway” or an antagonist of city hall. While the inner realities of running for office, especially so-called “higher office,” make the likelihood of a true outsider winning, someone “like us,” vanishingly small, we at least enjoy, and politicians cater to, the mythology that we elect people who are “for the people” and “against the establishment.”

But even quasi-outsiders, because they are outsiders, don’t understand how things work on the inside. Whatever one thinks of chief executives such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and current President Barack Obama, or current Florida Governor Rick Scott, one can identify with little difficulty critical moments when they made mistakes because they thought they knew how things worked (or, at least in a number of cases, thought they could make them work in a way that suited their leadership or management style) and were surprised to find that they were wrong.

Learning curves are okay; every leader or manager in a new position has a learning curve.

The potential danger in “outsiders” assuming positions of considerable political power is that the world may not give them time to overcome the learning curve. If they fail to catch on quickly enough, it’s not a corporation that falters or fails; it’s the entire population of a city, a state, a nation . . . maybe an entire world . . . who suffers from the failure.

Which begs the question: Why do we, the people of these United States, choose to “hire” leaders who lack experience in appropriate preparatory roles?

The answer . . . okay, my answer . . . Wednesday.