Donald Trump has proven that while anyone can get elected to high office in America, there are real life consequences to elections, and intelligence and expertise count for something.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Just because anyone can be elected to public office in America doesn’t mean that everyone should. Intelligence is not a sign of elitism and ignorance is not the mark of the populist everyman. Those are just tropes that one group of wealthy elites throws at another group of wealthy elites, in order to rile the 99% and convince them to embrace one and despise the other. It’s an old trick.
Our founders had long, bitter arguments concerning the wisdom or follow of allowing the general public to get too close to actual decision making. Truth be told, most of them weren’t all that keen on allowing the unwashed masses from doing much of anything, but understood the need to incorporate the public into the political process to avoid popular uprisings that would endanger their ability to govern and therefore profit from their position.
It wasn’t exactly the type of democratic romanticism we indulge in today. These were wealthy, white, male land-owners with a desire to become a new form of upper class without the oppressive yoke of the British monarchy robbing them of their hard-stolen profits. These were men with slaves arguing about God-given rights of liberty. They weren’t so much libertarian saints as much as budding entrepreneurs with a better sense of public relations.
If you look at the so-called populist message of Donald Trump and his ability to arouse anger and fear in a far too significant percentage of the population, you might begin to wonder if maybe the founders didn’t understand a little more about mob rule and the fragility of democracy than we give them credit for. If you allow for direct democracy, without any safeguards, you can end up with a demagogue that convinces a majority of the population to follow them despite obvious lies and conflicts of interest. The public, it turns out, isn’t that bright after all.
This is not a very “woke” position to take in 2020, when we assume everyone has inalienable rights and an equally valid opinion about even things they know nothing about. But there is the reality that 90% of Americans don’t follow, care about, or understand 99% of policy discussions concerning government. They are swayed by a few, technicolor issues that are either glorified or demonized, depending on which television network is profiting from selling them dishwasher detergent.
We don’t like to think that we are not part of the elite, and rightly so, since all too often, the elites are not smarter, more versed in government policy, with a deeper understanding of human behavior, or even a more advanced understanding of economic theory. They are merely rich.
But just because we seek greater equality in representation does not mean we should grab the dumbest girl in class and make her our leader because she has the best hair.
We need to come to grips in America with the idea that we should desire the best and the brightest to lead us. Smart people with good ideas, but who are not so egotistical to believe they have all the answers. This is one of the great paradoxes in America politics. The Dunning-Kruger effect where the dumbest guy overestimates their ability and so appears confidence, while the truly smart ones underestimate theirs and so appear unsure of themselves. In our stupid television-addled brains, we choose the confident, pretty, stupid one and kick sand in the face of the brilliant nerd who knows there is no single answer.
One of the more pervasive fallacies of the conservative right in America is the myth of the successful businessman politician. The idea that if you are successful in business, you possess the right skillset to be successful in government. That achieving financial success in business is the same as understanding economics. This is all patently false and illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of public policy and economics.
In business we look at success in terms of garnering a share of a finite market. The market is only so big, so if you’re winning, someone else is losing. When it comes to economic growth, the same does not hold true. The US and China might compete, but growth for one does not necessarily come at the expense of the other. In fact, it might be not only possible, but advantageous for both to grow and the possibilities are infinite. This is known as the zero-sum fallacy, or the fixed pie fallacy. The idea that there is a fixed or finite amount of wealth in the world, and you may only amass wealth at someone else’s expense. This is categorically not true.
This is just one arena where having an understanding of business does not translate into understanding economics, but the jump from business to government is even more complicated because of how success is measured.
The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “In the field of profit-seeking enterprise the objective of the management engineer’s activities is clearly determined by the primacy of the profit motive. His task is to reduce costs without impairing the market value of the result or to reduce costs more than the ensuing reduction of the market value of the result or to raise the market value of the result more than the required rise in costs. But in the field of government the result has no price on a market. It can neither be bought nor sold.”
The difference between government and business is determining value, which is not so simple as a basic P&L statement, or an understanding of market share. A library is not profitable, but profitability belies its true value to society. Public safety has only negligible value in terms of economic value apart of protecting property, but may have great value in regards to social order, and even greater perceived value when it comes to political influence.
The fact of the matter is, the successful businessman politician is a unicorn. A mythical creature that we’ve all heard about but not one has actually seen in real life. A carpenter, an oil rigger and a dentist all use a drill, but the jobs themselves are not interchangeable because the context of each, and the means by which we gauge their success, are all completely different.
But maybe far worse than the conservative ethos of the businessman politician, is the everyman. We are well versed in America with the fable of Mr. Smith traveling to Washington to take on the corruption of elitists. Armed with nothing more than small-town values and folksy wisdom, he shines a light on their dark ways with honesty and plain-spoken integrity.
There was a time when we had heroes in America. People who were bigger than life, that lived in worlds we could only imagine, and who captivated our imaginations. But little by little we whittled down our heroes, as well as our villains, until they were just like us. We took movie stars, who once appeared briefly on the silver screen, and we turned them into nothing more than genetic lottery winners getting Starbucks in sweatpants with ridiculous dogs.
When even our heroes were just the girl or guy next door, our politicians had no chance. If your neighbor’s teenage daughter can be a YouTube star, there is no reason why you can’t be the mayor. If a third-rate actor can become governor, then a reality-television celebrity can become President. We once chose to elect statesmen for their ability to inspire us beyond ourselves. Now we elect the loudest guy in our dart league for his comical willingness to offend.
Until 1913, United States Senators were chosen by state legislatures. The idea being that it took a majority of voters to elect a majority of state legislators and they would in turn collectively decide who to best represent them in Congress. There was a vetting of sorts, that presumably ensured that qualified people were selected, and ultimately, the voters could choose to elect new legislators if they failed to do so.
Now with unlimited campaign financing, anyone with the capital to run a multi-million dollar campaign and the ability to market themselves to the American people, can run and win. They are not really responsible to anyone other than their donors, and the only way to discern their character is to read about them in the paper or watch them on television. We allow an electorate that barely pays attention to government at all, let alone the actors within it, to choose our leaders based on nothing more than the quality of their marketing efforts.
The higher up you go in politics, the more rarefied the air, as it becomes more and more expensive to compete. At the upper echelon, one must either be wealthy yourself, or in close proximity to those who are.
Even at the entry level of local politics, we again fall into the trap of believing that there is value in the novice taking on the system with nothing more than a fiery attitude and an influential social circle. Expertise and intelligence are not prerequisites for a job that is more dependent on campaigning than governing. Because of our corrupt campaign finance system, we encourage those who can profit from providing access to wealthy business interests, as opposed to those who would serve the public out of a sense of duty. We have incentivized the worst possible behavior, for the most profitable outcome, for the fewest number of people.
I’m sure you liked your football coach, and remember your ex-girlfriend from high school with affection. Maybe the guy who owns the ferris wheel and arcade knows a lot of people in town and your insurance salesman was in the Army once. But this does not make them fit for public office.
The guy who can pick your pocket while convincing you to vote for him is going to do well in politics, but that doesn’t make him qualified to oversee economic development in town. Glad-handing your uncle Jerry is not the same thing as convincing a company to invest millions in your town, despite what your uncle Jerry thinks.
We need to remember that when voting for our elected officials, we used to consider a critical element in determining eligibility, and that’s character. It used to have a much more moral connotation, which might be relevant if it weren’t so tied to religious, legalistic morality. It is said that the character of a person consists of all the qualities they have that make them distinct from other people, the inherent complex of attributes that determines a persons moral and ethical actions and reactions. In essence, an attempt to determine who a person is as identified by how they will behave in given circumstance.
Maybe more important than any other element of one’s character that will give us some insight into how they will behave is intelligence. Not just intellectual intelligence being how smart you are, but emotional intelligence as well, being an indication of how empathetic you are.
Why is intellectual and emotional intelligence so important in government? For the same reason it might not be necessary or even advantageous in business. In business you might be better off with a leader who will operate entirely out of pure greed, at the detriment of his entire industry, as long as he propels his company forward. Jeff Bezos is the most successful book seller in the history, but he destroyed the entire industry in the process in order to sell you laundry detergent, delivered free of charge in two days or less.
Government is about serving the people. It’s an equation of human proportions that does not end in dollars and cents, but in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot afford to evaluate human life on a P&L statement, any more than we expect to justify the value of religious freedom against the cost of tolerance. It’s an undefinable sum.
Maybe more than any other lesson we will come away with from the experience of Donald Trump as President will be the realization of how dangerous it is to glorify ignorance as some sort of everyman righteousness. You don’t want a guy just like you running an incomprehensibly complicated organization. You want a woman so much smarter than you, you can barely contemplate the disparity. But beyond mere IQ, you want someone with the emotional intelligence and humility necessary to comprehend the awesome responsibility that it takes to oversee the lives of strangers and make decisions that can have life and death consequences. It doesn’t matter whether they are running for school board, mayor, sheriff, county commissioner, state legislator, Representative, Senator or President.
Every man is not worthy of, nor prepared for, that level of responsibility. It takes a special person, who accepts the challenges and understands their limitations, to succeed against all odds.
Don’t waste your vote on the person you think you want to have a beer with. Vote for the person who will be up nights worrying that you will be enjoying it with something you actually care for.
That should be the rule.