Once, Credentials Determined Officials
Thought Experiment: how many of our highest-impact careers, tasked with protecting everyone’s health, safety, and welfare, practice at will, without thresholds for schooling, credentials, or skill-sets? Hardly any. Age and birthplace aside, there are more task-oriented validations to operate a truck, ship, plane or train than run the White House. Such careers, because they overtly risk life and limb, require written, vision, lessons and/or real-world operating tests. And for “high prestige” professions, like medicine, dentistry, engineering, law and psychiatry, demands for elaborate proofs of real achievements apply.
No one trusts the multitude to assess heart surgeons, approve bridge construction, or certify life-saving genetic research. Why is it, compared to countless other, all-important roles, that “law-makers” stand alone, above the law, immune from demands to validate competence? Politics remains a glaring, backward exception to a complex, modern culture that rightly demands top credentials for top jobs: any buffoon struts into high political office and commandeers god-like powers over life and death.
This is no elitist whine or demand for consensus. We’re not talking about mandating law, political science or economics degrees, but asking why politicians have such low bars for qualifications and on-the-job training. Listen to current, unelected loudmouths, too busy or arrogant to serve on a school board or planning commission, as if bravado stands in for what they don’t know about government. Today, as mass media and concentrated wealth pollute public forums, time for adults to do what they do when facing mayhem: enact better rules of the road. Is it unreasonable to demand candidates prove they 1) understand the basics of governance (vs. strident obstructionism and blackmail), 2) have clues about modern knowledge, especially in science, so 3) they can stop turning American leadership into the world’s laughing stock.
Buffoons are Health Hazards
So, how exceptional is politics, dependent for “credentials” simply on winning? Very. Not like doctors or nurses (nor most health specialists), not engineers or building contractors, plumbers or electricians, not teachers or professors: all need “outside” credentials. Ditto for CPAs, ship captains, lawyers, judges, vets, realtors, pharmacists, investment advisers, insurance agents, clergyman, scientists, casino owners or taxi drivers, every pilot whatever the plane — plus folks in contact with living bodies (life-saving guards, physical therapists, often beauticians and manicurists). Even craven corporate lobbyists must register in advance.
In contrast, here’s my short list for jobs without formal or established credentials: politicians and their advisers (nefarious spin doctors like Karl Rove), actors and entertainers, TV newscasters and journalists, pro sports players, CEOs and business managers/owners (though corporate executives often have academic, even advanced degrees). Even low-level jobs, like warehousing, retail, or postal clerks, need high school degrees and face mental health, drug or law enforcement scrutiny. Anyone for testing Trump’s mental health?
So, no wonder politicians, CEOs and entertainers spew forth such monumental nonsense, whether about race, education, law, militarism, foreign affairs, history, science, sexuality, procreation, tax and budget policy, climate change, and more. Ladies and gentlemen, without serious competition (except from fundamentalist preachers), the grand prize for compacting more arrogant contempt with moralistic ignorance: ta da, unelected candidates, by a nose ahead the second place gang: clowns who got elected.
Palin Still the Nadir
Trump leads today’s brigade of GOP blockheads, but the belligerent Sarah Palin remains the poster child for doltishness, so unqualified she makes throwing darts at telephone books a better way to select officials. Palin is Trump’s precursor (or pre-curser), specializing not just in untruths and lies but such idiotic contortions bright sixth graders shake their heads over blatant logical fallacies.
Once upon a time, politicians were awarded high office because of tenure, accomplishments, and expertise in government. Apprenticeship required surviving local positions, then often state before national office. That’s why every president boasted prior, high public office. All, even the ex-generals, has notable calls to public service, and most had enough communication skills on complex issues so voters could reckon what choices meant.
Representative government withers when “best and the brightest” get elbowed out by the “worst and the dumbest.” Sure, past figures held primitive beliefs on race, gender, and marriage, but how many aggressively scoffed at top professional expertise outside their fields, what the educated call evidence and knowledge? How many would have broadcast their endlessly zealous commitment to gridlock, especially as problems amplify? Zero production in the old days doomed re-election, however rich your benefactors and sponsors. I even recall genuine mavericks, boldly diverging more than once a decade on big stuff like war, banking privileges, and defense spending.
Of course, keeping superior officials honest were equally smart, fearless journalists, the kind who’d eagerly skewer nonsense today, on vaccines, oil pipeline boondoggles, and especially climate change as a worldwide hoax concocted by hordes of global scientists. One can only imagine, in an alternative universe, how Molly Ivins or Art Buchwald, let alone Gore Vidal, H.L. Mencken or Mark Twain, would have feasted on today’s imbecilities.
During the Enlightenment, our idealistic Founders glowed with democratic ardor at the notion of any bright, respectable (although white, monied) property owner qualified for public office. Such relative openness allowed America to offset Old World, aristocratic entrenchment: one inherited class, often with royal vetting, produced leaders; otherwise the nouveau rich bought appointments, with heavy-duty ethnic and religious tests. What a radical idea: a free citizen takes the reigns of power, fulfilling the freedom of the individual chance for greatness.
Learning From the Dubya Fiasco
Thus, I propose a movement that insists all candidates to state or national office satisfy reasonable licensing minimums, affirming basic knowledge of government, finance, science, and good ethics. Federal and state agencies oversee campaign rules, funding, and spending; government specialists hunt up and indict fraud and malfeasance. Why not oblige candidates to substantiate education, electoral experience, and skills in handling the wide range of governance, like “emotional intelligence” working with opponents? As with surgeons or licensed engineers, why not have competence tests so that we disqualify that who will certainly fall on their faces and degrade the country for years to come?
How many adults, even rabid conservatives, regret Palin was never VP? Do we have to endure gross incompetence in power to appreciate monumental downsides, not just for today but our children’s generation? Must we repeatedly elect more Dubyas because we don’t learn from experience? If Dubya’s reign of error and terror spawned no other positives than promoting explicit, testable standards, that would in part offset our worst modern presidency (so far). Such standards would not even demand what reversing Citizens United requires: amending the Constitution or getting a new Supreme Court. Focus on credentials need not be done by the government but an independent commission that sets licensing standards for voters to take seriously.
The public didn’t insist on licensing doctors until too many quacks killed too many people. Or set up explicit standards for public safety until awful fires swept the cities, buildings imploded, or controllable diseases ravished thousands. More than enough bad recent news proves the status quo, that is, zero credentials for politicians, lets boobs, yahoos or demagogues threaten whatever is left of democracy. Minimum credentials would guarantee folks like Trump don’t get to finish their 15 minutes of fame.