I’ve been writing this week about the American love of the outsider candidate for public office, the one who proudly proclaims his or her lack of experience with public office as a valuable credential for being elected to it.
On Wednesday, I suggested two reasons why I thought we voters in the U.S. tend to favor the inexperienced: our belief in the mythology of the ‘common person’ who rises to greatness, and our profound distrust of governments. Both, I think, influence many voters when choosing between the ‘pol’ and the novice. And while I argued that the former is more of a fantasy than a reality, the latter certainly has proven to have some merit.
But we can take skepticism of government too far. And often, we do.
Perhaps the context in which we most often go too far is during campaign season (which, increasingly, seems to begin the day after the election and continue until the day of). This, I believe, is the third and perhaps most fundamental reason why we so often prefer the one who claims to be an outsider
3. Campaigning against Governing
The simple fact of democratic politics is that one wins office by appealing to a larger group of people who choose to vote than one’s opponents. The question is, How does one appeal most successfully?
In a society that valued experience in office, one would appeal to one’s governmental credentials. But if one cannot appeal to expertise or experience, if such appeals seem to damage rather than enhance one’s chances of victory, what can one appeal to?
One possibility is to be an inspirational leader. One can inspire confidence by one’s presence and performance as a candidate. We’ve all met such individuals, or at least seen them on television. Arguably, both former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had some of that presence and much of that performance (and, it should be noted, both claimed not to be ‘from Washington’). But the fact that we can name these two readily . . . and then struggle to name five more upon whom most of us can agree, tells us something about inspirational leadership.
It’s a rare thing.
Which leads to the most common campaign communication strategies: criticize and promise.
These are things any reasonably competent communicator can do. What is more, our experienced political leaders (on both sides of the aisle), our journalists, and our talk show hosts have mastered the art of trapping others in acts that seem to give the lie to anything those others might claim to be. Legislative leaders set up votes that lack practical significance (no real policy decision will result) but put legislators on record voting against precisely the thing they claim to support. Debate moderators often seem to thrive on the gotcha question that has little to do with what a leader has or will do in public service and everything to do with embarrassing him or her (Remember John King’s opening question to Newt Gingrich in the debate in South Carolina? Mr. Gingrich got the better of Mr. King on that one, but that’s an extraordinary exception, not the rule).
Between the phony votes and the misquoted quotes, our campaigns seem to revolve around publicly available evidence about the incompetence, inconsistency, or downright incoherence of our candidates. Such criticisms are easy to fashion and deliver, especially when someone has a record of public service, with public positions on public issue available to anyone to exploit for political advantage.
But the private citizen rising to take on City Hall or the inside-the-Beltway crowd doesn’t have a record to exploit. Many (most? all?) of their opinions about the issues of the day are known only to those closest to them, those most likely to support them anyway. Their leadership style has not been on display on the nightly news or YouTube. Even if their private professional life has stirred some internal controversy, it generally is easier to dismiss the disgruntled employee or partner than it is to dismiss the recorded vote or newspaper quote.
The other thing an outsider can do more credibly than an insider is make promises. He or she can promise to reduce taxes, improve education, fix the potholes, strengthen our national and domestic security, and find a cure for cancer. Never having served in public office, we don’t expect that she or he will have demonstrated a commitment to any of these noble causes yet. The promise is all there is, all there can be, and all we really expect.
If the candidate promises loud enough, persistently enough (the big lie theory applies here), at least some people will believe. If the candidate finds the right mix of promises, and has enough resources to ensure that the right voters hear those promises often enough, that candidate stands a good chance of winning.
My primary concern with all of this is simple: we need experienced, knowledgeable, capable leaders in public office. We need people who understand how politics works and are willing to make it work for the good of the people. And we need a public that understands that governing isn’t about simply keeping promises; it’s about working with others to achieve the best outcome for the public as a whole.