Expertise matters

One of the really fun things about being a professor of Political Science is that I can talk about my job and a subject I totally love with just about anybody.  Of course, going back to graduate school, I know have 24+ years of it being my job to study American politics, so I really know what I’m talking about.  The downside of being a professor of Political Science is that anybody who watches 15 minutes of Fox News (or MSNBC) a day nonetheless thinks they are on equal footing.  They’re not.  Thus, I really love this Frank Bruni column inspired by Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy for NY governor:

You wouldn’t want to be operated on by a physician with only a few surgeries under his or her belt, and the assurance that this doctor brought a fresh perspective to anesthesia and incisions wouldn’t thrill you.

You would choose a pilot who had flown 999 flights over one with nine, and you would want your child’s teacher to be practiced with pupils, not merely a vessel of great enthusiasm.

So why the romance with candidates who have never done a stitch of government work before? …

Liberals complain a lot these days about how little regard many conservatives have for expertise, and that’s not only a fair point, it’s a vital one. In medicine, in social sciences, in economics and in so much else, rigorous training and painstakingly earned knowledge matter. They’re not badges of elitism. They’re proof of seriousness…

Shouldn’t experience count in politics, too? And doesn’t excitement about Winfrey for president or Nixon for governor have some relationship to disdain for professors who peddle inconvenient truths? Both responses elevate what’s ideologically and emotionally pleasing over what makes the most sense. Both degrade the importance of experience…

It’s as if I decided I wanted to be an actor,” Quinn told me. “I speak in public. I get my picture taken. I need to lose a little weight, but aside from that, why can’t I do this? Because I can’t. The years I might have spent developing skills in that area, I spent developing other skills.”

Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, said that the downgrading of experience and devaluing of expertise can be explained partly by the internet, which allows people to assemble their own preferred information and affords them the delusion of omniscience.

The narcissism of our era also comes into play, he said. Feelings have been accorded as much currency as facts. No one can claim more or better feelings than anybody else. And so Nixon’s empathy as a mother and frustration as a subway rider, to name two themes in her video, carry as much weight as a political veteran’s legislative wrangling and budget balancing.

“Americans have a tendency to look around and think, ‘We are all peers now,’” Nichols told me. “It sounds lovely. Except that when you’re up to your hips in water in the basement and you’ve got a plumber standing there, you hand the wrench to him and say, ‘O.K., maybe we’re not peers.’”

The mess of the Trump administration suggests where an insufficient respect for germane experience can lead. The president put Carson in charge of federal housing, Rex Tillerson in charge of diplomacy and Jared Kushner in charge of civilization itself. None of this panned out, but all of it was true to how Trump campaigned.

Ahhh, good stuff.  And, no I don’t know everything about politics, but I am experienced in the subject and that means something.  And all else being equal, we’re a heck of a lot better off with the people running our government actually having experience running government.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Expertise matters

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Many voters think that being in politics tends to corrupt just about everyone who is. The reasoning is that an inexperienced but honest and sincere person beats a seasoned politician every time because just being successful in politics means the person has been corrupted.
    Now, if we can ever get big money out of politics, this attitude may change.
    Don’t hold your breath.

  2. Nicole K. says:

    “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. ”

    As long as some people have power that other people don’t have, corruption will always be something that remains a tempting possibility that those who have power may succumb to.

    It is impossible and likely undesirable to remove all money from politics. People are not robots and will not put the needs of others above their own just because they are supposed to.

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