The Problem with Electing Outsiders


When I chat with friends about what’s wrong with our political system, they frequently say something to the effect of, “We need to kick all the politicians out.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentiment – after all, our political system is founded on the idea that if you don’t like your representatives, you can hold them accountable by voting them out at the next election.

But, assuming my friends aren’t anarchists who want to remove all politician leaders without replacement (and I highly doubt they are), they probably want to elect new leaders to run the government. And this is where things get problematic. Because for many people, the ideal new leader isn’t a career politician. It’s someone who’s new to the political scene – the proverbial “outsider.” (Indeed, nearly half of Americans would prefer that policy decisions be left to business leaders or unelected experts.)

That’s at least in part what got Trump elected – his outsider status. It served Obama well, too; in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, he repeatedly contrasted himself, an outsider, with Hillary Clinton, a longtime figure on the national political stage. Here’s just one example, taken from a speech Obama gave on Labor Day in 2007:

There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington. But the problem is that the system in Washington isn’t working for us and hasn’t for a long time… A lot of people who’ve been in Washington a lot longer than me, they’ve got better connections, they go(to the)right dinner parties, they know how to talk the Washington talk. I may not have the experience Washington likes but I believe I have the experience America needs right now.

If you’re one of the many Americans who believes that we need to elect outsiders, I urge you to read this piece by Julia Azari. It lists just a few of the reasons why political amateurs are bad for democracy: they are less likely to embrace democratic norms like political tolerance; they’re more prone to authoritarian leadership styles; and they’re often ignorant of the laws governing our political institutions.

Lest you get riled up before reading the piece, here are some things that Azari is NOT saying.

  • Azari is NOT saying that new people shouldn’t enter politics. They should. But they probably shouldn’t be entering politics for the first time at the highest levels of government. Build expertise in your field – politics – and then run for Congress.
  • Azari is NOT saying that all career politicians are good at their jobs. They’re not. But on average, people who have taken the time to gain the expertise necessary to govern effectively will be better at their jobs than people who haven’t. (For proof of this at the state level, read up on legislative professionalism in state legislatures. To get you started, here’s a piece showing that professional legislatures – those with lengthier legislative sessions, higher lawmaker pay, and more financial resources – are less susceptible to special-interest influence.)

What is Azari saying, then? Here’s her top-line argument:

…the impulse to concentrate a lot of power in the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing isn’t going to improve American democracy. These problems require expertise, appreciation for political nuance, and understanding of the tensions inherent in democratic governance. These alone probably aren’t enough to fix our system. But there’s no substitute for the foundation they provide.

Give the piece a read, and let me know what you think in the comments.


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