Profession? Craft? Learned skills?
We're not dealing with something like medicine, engineering, or law, with fixed courses of study built up over the years, and official organs handing out licenses to those who pass muster.
However, the continuing flubs of the amateur who got himself to the White House invites a look at what it takes to be a successful politician in an orderly democracy.
Somewhere in the criteria should be expectations that a candidate will do more good than harm, or at least not bring upon a regime a crisis that threatens its economy, security, and/or the peaceful sleep of other politicians, citizens, and people of other countries..
Lots of observers guessed we were heading for trouble when Donald Trump became the first person to reach the White House with no previous political or governmental experience.
Wendell Wilkie was the only comparable figure to reach the finals, and Franklin Roosevelt dealt with him handily in the election of 1940. FDR polled 55 percent of the popular vote, and 85 percent of the electoral votes.
Explanations for Trump's victory depend on perspective. They include opposition among traditional Democratic voters to Hillary Clinton, and the performance of Barack Obama, as well as Trump's campaign style in appealing to Americans fed up with politics and open to the appeals of an outsider who spoke simply, like many of them. There was also a number of policy issues that turned off individuals tired of normal politics. Among them was the chronic unemployment and underemployment associated with the Rust Belt and the decline of what had been key industries, plus the shaking up of health care due to Obama's cumbersome effort at universal insurance.
This note does not represent the effort of a retired professor of political science to promote his profession as an entry requirement for elected officials. Some courses may help, but the gradual accumulation of experience appears to be what is essential.
Politics anywhere close to the peak of government requires intelligence and a number of skills. They include
- Familiarity with the most important interests being served by one's position
- A sense of key loci of support and opposition, and how much tolerance exists for movement in one direction or another, or for the continuation of the status quo
- At least a newspaper reader's familiarity with details on the government's agenda, or likely to reach it, including options likely to work, likely to fail, or provoke intolerable opposition from sectors that matter.
- Some knowledge about the technicalities associated with a governmental position, and how one may acquire detailed information and advice from the professionals who know more.
- A sense of what issues should be promoted vigorously, which should be given symbolic but minimal attention, which require the seeking out of a domestic or international coalition capable of working together, and which issues should be avoided as distractions or dangers..
- Openness and knowledge about sources of information outside of government, i.e., whose brains are worth picking, and who should be avoided.
- A capacity to work with others within one's party or group of supporters, as well as an ability to gain enough support, perhaps of the passive variety, from opponents
- These skills of going along to get along require a capacity to elicit trust or credibility, which is a matter of delicacy in a situation which also requires a capacity to elicit support by promising more than one is likely to deliver.
- Knowledge of whatever informal rules of the game have been established to define what is acceptable and unacceptable, which organizations and foreign governments can be trusted with sensitive information and other forms of cooperation, and which must be kept at arms length or defined as beyond the boundaries of candor and cooperation.
- Enough information about political geography not only to maneuver among state and local sensitivities of the US, but also the countries of the world likely to be in the headlines during one's time in office.
- Self-discipline to act appropriately under the pressures of inquisitive media, activists, and competitors
The delicacy in managing a political career may be summarized by noting that politicians are expected to lie to voters and governmental colleagues at home and abroad, but not by too much.
Problems derive from the multiplicity of individuals and interests needing to be attracted, or at least to be kept satisfied and quiet, the conflicts of interests between them, and the impossibilities involved in hoping to satisfy them all.
The soft underbelly of American government and politics is the nature of presidential primaries. As shown by the successive elections of GW Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, they allowed individuals of increasing inexperience to reach the top. Lacking are institutions of strong parties, whose crafty politicians can worry about their own futures and work to keep individuals with obvious problems from getting a nomination. Or the demands of a parliamentary system, where experienced politicians have a say in allowing newcomers to gain experience in a minor office and later allowing their advance to positions of increasing responsibility.
Among the essential features of a democracy are one or another variety of checks and balances. The details differ from one government to the next, but they all entail competing institutions with the capacity to approve or deny the actions of those at the head(s) of other institutions.
Among those able to check a head of state are the legislature, courts, and professional bureaucracies. A reasonably free and varied collection of media also is essential to publicize what seems to be wrongdoing in a way to provoke action from those with governmental power.
The informal norms and procedures of government are no less important than the formal ones. The norms smooth the working of what are officially required but are cumbersome and time consuming.
It isn't easy for a government to rid itself of a superior official whose time has come. A parliamentary regime can dismiss a prime minister with the vote of party or governmental colleagues, but that may be a problem for politicians likely to be thinking of their own futures.
American procedures of impeachment have never succeeded in dismissing a president. But the possibility led Richard Nixon to resign.
Now we'll see what happens to the man who is widely viewed as America's most recent mistake. He talks about fake news. No less a Republican-oriented organ than the Wall Street Journal has referred to him as the fake president.
And Angela Merkel has said, after meeting with Trump, that Germany and Europe can no longer rely on America.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem