The advent of the digital camera (and its offshoot, the cell phone camera) created millions of self-appointed photographers. Social media, notably Twitter, Facebook, and blogging software, made millions of self-appointed political pundits (and Scriber admits to falling in these categories). But there is a presumed professionalism that accompanies photographers and pundits - or used to. (Think about Trump’s tweets.) And what is now happening is a flood of amateur aspirants to public office, often possessing no professional experience or qualifications for public office.
Because I believe in competent governance born of experience, this amateurization of the pool of candidates for public office worries me. And so I found resonance in the New York Times op-ed Politics Shouldn’t Be Like Open Mic Night by Jonathan Rauch (senior fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Raymond J. La Raja (professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) (h/t Penny Pestle) Here are key snippets and comments.
The number of Democrats aiming to unseat Republican incumbents in the midterm elections in November is rewriting the record books. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, by last fall the Democrats were fielding about twice the number of challengers as Republicans managed in 2009, the height of the Tea Party insurgency. In Wisconsin, 17 Democrats have filed papers to challenge Gov. Scott Walker; eight are running in Iowa’s open governor’s race.
More candidates, more activism, more enthusiasm: What’s not to like? The civic-spiritedness of many citizens who are engaging in electoral politics for the first time is impressive.
Another aspect of this flood of candidates, however, is reason for concern. In a recent study for the Brookings Institution, we took a close look at the post-Trump mobilization and found it to be a potentially transformative step toward the amateurization of American politics — a trend that should trouble people who worry about political polarization and government dysfunction.
Analysts and reformers obsess over who sends money into politics. Far more important, however, is who sends candidates. If reasonable candidates are lacking, then voters cannot make reasonable choices. For most of the country’s history, recruiting and vetting candidates was the job of political professionals: elected officials, party grandees and core constituencies such as unions and business organizations.
With the rise of populist candidates, the vetting process has become unsettled. To be sure, the “invisible primary”, as the authors call that traditional vetting process had its deficiencies.
The invisible primary had definite drawbacks — it overlooked too many qualified women, for example — but it also performed the single most essential function in politics: weeding out office seekers who are incompetent, extreme or sociopathic. Nothing worried the founders more than how to protect democracy from those with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers.
A plethora of groups both new (e.g., Indivisible) and old (e.g., Emily’s List) are recruiting progressive candidates.
The groups scout for military veterans, Sandersistas and others. But we found that what they generally do not scout for is competence at governing. In fact, many shy away from experience in government, on the theory that careerists are impure and inauthentic. As a representative of Justice Democrats, a group organized by former Sanders supporters, told us, “We don’t want career politicians, period.”
So the proliferation of candidates has “become like a clown car. Everyone thinks they’re qualified and everyone jumps in.” The result is that “candidates in primary races are becoming more ideological and more inexperienced.” The inevitable result is more political polarization and governmental paralysis.
To be effective at their jobs, politicians need know-how, connections and I.O.U.s, which take years to accumulate. President Trump lacked all of those assets, so it is no surprise he has had trouble governing. In Congress and state legislatures, frustrated leaders find themselves saddled with anyone and everyone who prevails in low-turnout primaries, no matter how nutty or disruptive.
Maintaining a competent, responsive political class requires vetting candidates through both popular and professional filters. Neither works well without the other. Both parties stand to benefit from recruiting more broadly, and, up to a point, amateurism can refresh politics.
But when the country finds itself taking seriously the possibility of a presidential contest between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, the cult of amateurism needs rethinking.
The now everyday chaos at the White House and the rotting of our government by incompetence and ignorance should be very loud warning signals. If you elect a clown you get a circus. Those of us in political groups, new or old, owe it to ourselves and the nation to take seriously our responsibility for vetting candidates. We need to set high bars for professionalism so as to strike a balance between progressive ideology and governmental experience.