Tomorrow I will meet my fall 2017 semester students for the first time. Though I am teaching three different courses, all three of my opening day lectures will focus on the same point. All of my students will read a concise description of the dangers of political amateurism written last month by political science professor and blogger Julia Azari.
Azari’s thesis is simple and her perspective widely shared by political scientists. Democracy is not easy and widespread public political ignorance and apathy has long created fertile ground for populist calls for the elevation of political outsiders to power. The problem is that political outsiders inevitably promote what Azari calls “the pernicious myth of populism that beneath elite squabbles there exists widespread unity of principles” among average Americans. Of course, there is no such consensus. Americans are committed to broadly defined ideals, like freedom, equality, and individual rights, but not agreed on precise definitions of these ideas or on how to realize them. For that, they need professional help.
After referencing examples of contemporary efforts by anti-politics, anti-political parties activists to promote the elevation of political amateurs/outsiders as a remedy for what ails our politics Azari writes, “[t]he idea that politicians’ ambition is possibly no longer compatible with pursuing good public policy is disturbing…” The political ambition of professional pols is not a flaw in our politics; it’s a design feature. The Framers of the Constitution counted on competitive political ambitions as an important check on the undemocratic accumulation of power. The ability of well-organized political parties (each defined by particular interpretations of our creedal values and designed to attract voters whose interests and principles align with these interpretations) to organize American elections remains crucial to the survival of American democracy. In the same way that cancer researchers are not attracted to amateur science/ scientists, an electorate that is sufficiently well informed and sufficiently knowledgeable about the design and workings of America’s political system would NOT be attracted to political amateurs, outsiders, or fringe parties.
Ambitious political professionals are possessed of all the shortcomings of any cadre of professionals, but it is foolish to define any field or profession by its bad actors. Attacks on the two major parties for insufficient attention to rigid advocacy for rigid definitions of America’s creedal values, when allowed to dominate the political conversation, are very dangerous and lead to crackpottery and irrationality, two prominent features of far right and far left politics in 2017. The widespread anti-intellectualist rejection of political professionalism and scientific expertise will not help the masses to topple the oligarchs, it will actually just speed up America’s descent into oligopoly.
Strident, anti-intellectual and anti-politics insurgencies presently plague both of America’s two major political parties. While this assault on well-functioning political parties is more advanced and has been considerably more successful in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party too is under similar assault by far left activists whose ignorance of our political system’s design, logic, and history has made them unwitting salespeople for extremism. Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” may in the long run be even more dangerous than Trumpism because unlike Trumpism, which has been thoroughly rejected by credible conservative intellectuals, Sanders’ brand of antiparty/ anti-politics progressivism has captured the hearts and minds of a wide swath of liberal intellectual elites in the United States.