The illusive appeal of the non-politician

The most amazing thing about tonight’s second Republican debate is how so much attention will be focused on two non-politicians who have soared to the top of the polls in their party’s race for the nomination—Donald Trump—a flamboyant businessman and entertainer and Ben Carson—a renowned neurosurgeon. The third person likely to get some attention is also a non-politician—Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

There is a lot of speculation as to why non-politicians are so popular this time around. Most of it centers on voters’ distrust and disappointment in traditional politicians and on polarization among the two political parties. The political system is not working very well at all. You have to go all the way back to 2009 in the Real Clear Politics averages of polls to find a point where the same number of Americans thought the country was going in the right direction as thought the country was going in the wrong direction—a time when America was still in the honeymoon phase with their new president, a political newcomer himself. Since then many more Americans have thought the country was on the wrong track.

The logic that seems to be pushing forward the Trumps and Carsons of the world is the belief that politics and politicians are the problem. But what if the problem with our politics is just the opposite? Not enough politicians who are good at politics?

Or think of it this way. Saying what you want to happen to America is pretty easy. Who doesn’t agree with Donald Trump’s goal—“I want to make America great again.” And who doesn’t agree with Ben Carson’s goal—“Each generation’s greatest responsibility is to pass on a greater opportunity to the next generation.”

But how about actually making these things happen? That’s where political skill comes in. The Founding Fathers deliberately created a government where two other equal branches of government keep the President from being the king. So that means that presidents have to be adept at dealing with their peers in the political process. Think about Abraham Lincoln artfully putting together the votes to end slavery or Franklin Roosevelt passing one law after another to move us out of the Great Depression. We often look retrospectively at such actions as a product of times of crisis, but they were brutal fights won because of the political talents of the chief executives.

In the old days, the nomination process used to test politicians for these skills. Before primaries replaced party control of the process, would be presidents had to wheel and deal their way to the nomination of their party. Those who won had generally shown some ability to put together coalitions and to win the respect of their peers. As the process changed and primaries replaced those awful smoke-filled rooms, a critical element of the nomination process got lost. Writing in the early 1980s as this transition was taking place, the political scientist Nelson Polsby warned that the new process of primaries would have unintended consequences.

“If having the good opinion of colleagues and others intimately connected with government and politics means little or nothing to a candidate’s chances for advancement, the nomination process then works at cross-purposes with the process of governing, which relies so heavily on accountability among elites. This may lead, in the first place, to inferior government, as persons unable to pass muster with their peers, occasionally prove to be popularly attractive. In the second place it may contribute to popular disaffection with government, as complaints about ineffective on-job performance filter down from Washington and interest group elites into the constituencies.”

The current romance with non-politicians, especially Trump, reminds me of another non-politician who won an election but couldn’t, as Polsby predicted, govern. In 1998 a flamboyant former Navy Seal turned television wrestler, Jesse Ventura, ran a third party race for Governor of Minnesota and won—much to the consternation of the political establishment. He promised Minnesotans a whole new world—a world unsullied by the mind set of the professional politician. Minneostans were proud, and bumper stickers appeared around the state reading “My Governor can beat up your Governor.”

But Ventura’s tenure in office was rocky. By the end of his first term his popularity was at an all-time low—his relationships with just about everyone he needed to govern successfully stretched. Seeing the writing on the wall, Ventura did not run for a second term. “His style was his greatest strength coming in, but it was also his worst enemy because he never made the smooth transition from candidate to officeholder,” said Wy Coker, a political journalist covering Minnesota politics

Fast forward to 2020 and you can easily envision the same thing being said about President Trump or even President Carson. Think about it this way: most of us can say wonderful things about neurosurgery and the great things it can accomplish for sick people. But really—would you want someone who isn’t a neurosurgeon operating on you? Maybe our problem in America today is not the presence of politicians but the absence of good ones.