I posed the question earlier this week, “Why do we, the people of these United States, choose to ‘hire’ leaders who lack experience in appropriate preparatory roles?”
I don’t have a definitive answer; a definitive answer probably doesn’t exist. But I think that there are three “truths,” perhaps particular to politics in these United States, perhaps more general in application, that can take us a long way to understanding the appeal of the “outsider.” I’ll address two of them today, and the last on Friday.
1. We believe the mythology of the “common person” who rises to greatness
I need to start by being clear about the use of “myth” here. Myths can contain significant truths. Saying something is “mythic” does not necessarily mean it is false.
But in this case, I mean “mythology” in the sense of a powerful but false belief.
There are true stories of “ordinary” folks from “ordinary” backgrounds who rise to positions of power and influence. The current chief executives of both the United States and Florida have such stories they like to tell, and these stories have at least a certain truth to them. But both men have law degrees. Both men are conversant with sums of money measured in millions . . . or billions.
That’s pretty uncommon stuff, the kind of thing most people will never achieve or experience. That’s not to condemn either of them, to be sure. But it is to acknowledge that, somewhere along the way, these men from in some ways “ordinary” backgrounds achieved and received extraordinary things.
Which . . . sorry . . . makes them unlike the vast majority of the people they govern. It makes their life experience radically different than ours. And it means that, of necessity, the people who rise to greatness are different in important ways from those whose greatness is measured, not by the billions of dollars of tax revenue over which they exercise responsibility, but by the affection of their Little Leaguers for them, or their devotion to elderly neighbors down the street.
Every time we are reminded of how very different our leaders’ lives are from our own, we become suspicious. When we look around and see that, gosh darn it, all of our leaders’ lives are very different from our own, the second factor kicks in.
2. We don’t trust governments
Americans have a long and healthy history of distrust of too much power in any set of hands. We broke away from England because of it (arguably). We consciously designed and ratified a system of government with more checks than a hockey game and no clear path to accomplish anything because of it. And we quickly added a list of restrictions on government action that included language like “Congress shall make no law . . .” just to be on the safe side. And that was just in the opening act of a long history of distrust.
Such distrust has served us well. Even in a crisis, like the Founding period, or the Civil War, or the Great Depression, and even if we are fond of the leader who has emerged in that time, it is nearly always possible to find other leaders who will challenge and criticize and refuse to “kneel” before them. And those rights we codified, and our commitment to them, keeps those critics out of prison and away from the firing squad.
By the same token, our distrust of nearly all things governmental means that one of the best ways to run for office is to deny any knowledge of office. Being from “outside” the capital or the government is a badge of merit that appeals to our distrust of those who undoubtedly have been corrupted by being in government . . . even if their time there also taught them how things work, and how to make them work better.
We just don’t trust them.
Next: Campaigning against Governing