The Case For Expertise

Michael Gerson is a political conservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. He has also been a consistent “never Trumper.” He recently made the conservative case for Joe Biden, in a Washington Post column.

Gerson began by reciting some of the reasons conservatives should reject not just Donald J. Trump but the Republicans running with him, in order to crush the current iteration of the GOP.

Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, it is not enough for him to lose. He must lose in a fashion that constitutes repudiation. For the voter, this means that staying home on Election Day, or writing in Mitt Romney’s name, is not enough. She or he needs to vote in a manner that encourages a decisive Biden win. This theory also requires voting against all the elected Republicans who have enabled Trump (which is nearly all elected Republicans). A comprehensive Republican loss is the only way to hasten party reform. Those who love the GOP must (temporarily) leave it and ensure it is thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Gerson then moved to the positive reasons to support Joe Biden, and in doing so made a point that is far too often ignored. As he reminds readers, the restoration of our governing institutions  requires the knowledge and skills of an insider. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”

As readers of this blog know, I teach in a school of public affairs. We teach students who are planning to go into government the specialized “knowledge and skills” that they will need in such positions. Those skills differ from the skills imparted in the business school; they include everything from public budgeting to the important differences between the private, public and nonprofit sectors, to political philosophy, to constitutional ethics.

I am so over the facile assertion that success in business (and yes, I know Trump wasn’t successful) will easily translate into the ability to run a government agency or  administration. The job of a businessperson is to make a profit; the job of government is to serve the public good. People who do not understand that distinction–and the very different approaches that distinction requires– don’t belong in public positions.

Gerson makes another important point: the complexity of today’s government requires administrators who actually understand how it all works.

There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.

Gerson characterizes this election as a choice between an arsonist and an institutionalist, and points to the assets of the institutionalist. I agree, but I also understand that some fires are set accidentally. Trump is, of course, an intentional arsonist, but his monumental ignorance has also done incredible–often inadvertent– harm to our governing institutions.

During his embarrassing Town Hall on NBC,  Trump defended his re-tweet of a conspiracy theory, prompting Savannah Guthrie to remind him that he is President, not “someone’s crazy uncle.” But really, electing a President with absolutely no understanding of government, the constitution, checks and balances or the way public administration actually works has turned out to be pretty much the same thing as putting someone’s crazy uncle in charge.

Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.


  1. Trump may have set some of those fires accidentally due to ignorance, but the Republicans in the Congress and sitting on judicial benches who went along with the conflagration, cheering it on in many cases, did so on purpose. It’s not just Trump who has wrecked the county. It’s the whole damn bunch of ’em.
    Throw the bums out!

  2. “If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.” Sheila Kennedy

    “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance.” Albert Einstein

    We are caught in a dangerous national situation of voters who have become addicted to the authority of “a shiny object”, or the one with the loudest mouth in this case, who will lead them. But, lead them where is my question? I will also ask; what charges does Trump demand his personal Attorney General file against Joe Biden to “lock him up”?

    “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Albert Einstein

    Trump’s follows blind belief in the truth of his authority is currently directly leading them into the Covid-19 Pandemic, a life-and-death struggle being fought by millions of Americans who choose to ignore the expertise of medical advice by medical experts.

    “Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.”

    I have forgotten who made this comment which describes our “crazy uncle” Donald Trump, “i am fiercely loyal to those who are willing to put their money where my mouth is.”

  3. Accepting the point as valid I’m left with how can a person ( like myself) who has been an outspoken critic of all things Trumpism , how can I work with the same people that made up his cult following? I can’t and won’t. I’ll happily work to create a viable fiscally conservative party but won’t rejoin those that bought into the con Trump has sold to the GOP.

  4. Wow, another conservative finding a place in the Democratic Party. Those of us reminding folks how far right the DNC has moved while the Koch’s pushed the GOP off the cliff were correct with our projections.

    Sadly, what Sheila is teaching these young minds is how to be employees of the oligarchy. How to fit into a hierarchical power structure. You could actually merge the business and public affairs’ schools because both are run like corporations.

    Gerson supports Biden so he can, “…the restoration of our governing institutions…”

    Really? Joe Biden is going to do that? LOL

    Joe let Republicans speak more at the Convention than he did progressives. His cabinet will most likely consist of more Republicans than progressives. If we had a democracy in this country and the political spectrum was valid, the Democratic Party would be right of center. They are basically the old GOP.

    We talk every day about the rapid changes that have been taking place in our world, but for some reason, we don’t see how our political landscape is changing. Is this a Boomer flaw? Holding on to the old days?

    If Joe turns his cabinet into a bridge party to allow the GOP to fix itself by hosting conservative Republicans, he’ll have a two-year window before losing the entire left flank (just like Obama). You’ll get another Donald Trump or the original in 2024.

    JoAnn’s quoting Einstein this morning, so in keeping with that trend, he told us in the 40s that ALL our democratic institutions were owned and operated by the oligarchy. ALL of them. His exact words were:

    “The result of these developments [private capital concentrated in a few hands] is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.” ~ (Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism”, 1949)

  5. In fact, he is someone’s crazy uncle. Niece Mary wrote a book about him.

    I guess you can call me a former member of the deep state. I’ll tell anyone willing to listen that the vast majority of Federal Government employees are there to work for the people, not the President nor those who surround him. We all had our political preferences, but that didn’t matter. We all raised our hands and took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the President and certainly not the party.

    Todd, please note that Einstein is talking about private capital being “concentrated in a few hands…” In a good economic system, those things which are appropriate to private capital are done by many competing private companies or individuals and those that are not are a public function. In the good old US of A we used to use the tools we had to break up huge corporations and insure a competitive environment. Since the Reagan Administration, we have abandoned any measure of regulation of the extremes of capitalism. We should never have banks or any other business that we deem too big to fail. IN ALL OF OUR HISTORY, NO SINGLE SYSTEM HAS EVER WORKED.

  6. Political ideology has led to “experts” being picked who best carry out that ideology. A good example was a book by David Halberstam published in 1972, the Best and Brightest. The book is about the escalation in Vietnam.

    These “experts” that Halberstam refers to were more driven by ideology rather than facts. We know the result.

    The “experts” also told us Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2 would be walk over and easy defeat of the Iraqi military. This proved to be true, it was what happened next that the “experts” ignored, i.e., anarchy and urban resistance.

    The GOP suits were perfectly happy with The Trumpet, cutting taxes for the uber wealthy and corporate America and de-regulation. The GOP suits badly miscalculated, when they thought The Trumpet would require and need their expertise to run the country.

    The Trumpet owns lock stock and barrel the GOP Voters. He does not need the GOP suits – They need The Trumpet.

    The Trumpet’s expertise has been to find and tap into the reservoir of anti-science (elitism) and willful in your face ignorance. The Trumpet has in addition found people who are willing and able to carry out his ramblings. Dr Scott Atlas, is a Stanford scientist and Fox News contributor who has gained the president’s ear.

    Atlas opposes accepted anti-Covid measures. At the weekend, Twitter removed a message from Atlas that said masks did not work to combat the virus. Trump has made similar claims.

    How odd from the above:
    “There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.”

    Ford also lost the 1976 election to an “outsider” one term president Jimmy Carter.

  7. The faulty assumption Gerson in makes is that the current GOP, particularly the rank and file, wants to reform. Forty percent of them are still clinging to the short-fingered vulgarian. For them, ignorance and self-aggrandizement ARE expertise, and demagogic cruelty the new bread and circuses.

    The GOP will have to be crushed not only in this election, but in every election, and I mean EVERY election, for a couple of decades. That means Democrats will need to learn how to organize, not just mobilize, view every race as competitive, and put together a long-range plan for every level of office in every district. That means undertaking our own massive, from-the-ground-up reform. I wish us luck.

  8. He lost me at “ Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party”.  Gergen, like many GOP (and media) elites, regard Trump as an anomaly, or a cyst on the neck that got so big it took over the head. That’s not what happened. The vast majority, 90% in polls, of rank & file GOP members FULLY EMBRACED TRUMP AND STILL DO!!!
    So it’s not enough to lament that one charlatan has soiled the party and reject him. They need to REJECT THE PARTY for what it has become. It makes me SICK to hear that Biden is considering a number of GOP never-Trumpers for cabinet and/or agency leadership positions as a way of “reaching across the aisle”.  He should require them to publicly renounce their party, but NOT swear allegiance to Dems, as a condition. And Biden, assuming he wins and that’s NOT in the bag, had better be FAR more concerned with keeping the left and moderate elements of the Dem party together for the next four years. The LAST thing we need is to snap back to a federal government run by and for THE MUSHY MIDDLE and CORPORATE POWER that created all the conditions for Trump to take over the GOP and win the Presidency in the first place. 
    As to the difference between working in business or government, I’ve done both and I don’t believe it lies in the profit motive per se in business or the lack of one in government. It has far more to do with focus on mission. Because a business is generally required to make a profit that is acceptable to its owners and executive management, this has a way of bringing continuity of focus to every activity in conducting that business…not necessarily 100% of the time and even large sprawling businesses sometimes lose that focus altogether until they either find it, become acquired, or be liquidated. None of those mechanisms exist in government. The only existential threat is the loss of funding from a legislative body. However, they DO have or SHOULD have a mission that is embedded in the laws that created it and guide it with changes from time to time. 
    And that’s where things go wrong. Many agencies have missions that are unclear, overlapping, duplicative, and even conflict with each other and there is no mechanism to counter this. What is COMMON to both highly-profitable businesses and highly effective government agencies is quality of leadership at all levels, in the case of government that starts in the legislative and executive branch at the national, state and local level. Other skills and know-how are incredibly important but without continuity of purpose and good leadership other human capital is often frittered away. And what passes for leadership in this country is just tragic…..SO MANY Americans have seen SO LITTLE effective leadership in their lives that they think it’s nothing more than the loud, brash, misogynistic hot mess that bullshitted his way through life and into the White House. 

    So I’m ALL for expertise, but expert leadership at all levels comes first! Cheers

  9. Once again Sheila, excellent thread!

    You brought up a very truthful point, that being a business person does not translate well into being a good public servant!

    Especially those who want to rule the roost and run the show as in CEOs, COOs, Presidents, VP’s and all the rest of these corporate elite wannabe politicians! These above mentioned want those who they are supposed to serve, serve them!

    Way way back, servants who ran wealthy households, were the most trusted and talented individuals there were. They were trusted with everything the family had, their wealth, their well-being, investments, every aspect of their lives were entrusted to those beloved servants.

    Many times, those servants were made a legal part of the family and shared in the families Good Fortune.

    I’m not talking about slavery, that was a completely different beast so to speak. Slavery was cruel and a forced subservient existence with little or no reward.

    People who truly want to be a public servant are a rare animal indeed! Because a lot of reward does not exist in that field. The only reward one would have besides maybe making a wage from it, is the satisfaction of helping those being served and doing good for your fellow man.

    A compassionate, empathetic and ethical public servant would not differentiate between rich or poor, racial makeup, immigration status whether legal or not, religion, ethnicity and the like.

    Unfortunately those individuals are few and far between, the game is always a foot, there are no standards that are abided by, politicians seem to sway with the breeze, instead of working for the greater good of all citizens no matter who they are, educational or social status, who they love or who they worship.

  10. In response to your statement that government that is not a business but an instititution that can serve the greater good, I wonder how many businesses have the intention of serving the greater good. It seems to me that most just want to serve their share holders. If they want to work for the greater good, they must invest in systems that reduce their carbon out put and care for their workers better since their workers are actually their greatest asset.

    I want a health care system that serves the greater good and still is profitable. It would, of course, require that we invest much more in public health infrastructure and better pay for public health nurses. The aim would be to reduce health care costs with programs aimed at helping people prevent illness. After all an ounce of prevention is worth a pound ( or maybe now it’s 10 pounds) of cure.

  11. Todd,

    I see your point, but I would have to say, Nazi Germany was a great experiment in socialism, it devolved into fascism or nationalistic socialism. Firmly planted on the right!

    American capitalists built the German war machine, Ford was building vehicles for the German and American military, Westinghouse was building war materials for both sides, Edison was a supporter of the nazis, Charles Lindbergh was a fan of Nazi germany, general motors, general electric, the list goes on and on and on, so yes, capitalism and fascism are indelibly linked!

    These individuals were the wealthy elite, therefore they gravitated towards the right, nationalistic socialism ie fascism was a natural attraction, just like a moth to the flame!

  12. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Yes, we have — but it didn’t begin with Trump.
    At least as far back as the 1980’s, Republicans began denigrating education, science, any expertise exhibited by anyone at all. This repudiation explains Gohmert and Gaetz and their fellow travelers. Aamof, it explains Trump himself.

    I believe this attack began as a result of the climate change alarms that, iirc, began at about the same time as the “elitism” attack. Doing what it would take to combat climate change would mean 1] spending money and 2] requiring people to change their habits.

    In order to spend money, one must raise money and Republicans abhor taxes. And borrowing the amounts necessary to do the job would kill the economy. What to do? Why, claim that climate change is a hoax put about by those “elites” who just want government grants to pad their resumes and bank accounts.

    Requiring people to change is unpopular among politicians in general and among conservatives in spades. Just look at what is happening today on the minor matters of wearing a mask and standing 6 feet apart. The changes needed to combat climate change will require much more. Painful change is not a winning platform.

    Trump was not a blip on anyone’s radar when Grover Norquist declared that he wanted to make government so small it could be drowned in a bathtub. Small government can neither raise money nor bring about change.

    iow — the problems we face predate Trump by a very long way. Aamof, I would postulate that Trump is the natural result of the demonizing of expertise as elitism — not its creator.
    Just like everything else he has benefited from, Trump inherited it.

  13. Clearly Biden Harris are facing a country laying in waste as many of us expected in 2016. There is just so much rebuilding that needs doing.

    I’m afraid that some time in the first 100 days will unfortunately be spent just restoring social order destroyed by the last desperate acts of Trumpican revenge. I hope that it’s a short period.

    There will also be an urgent need to shut down our thriving business of making coronavirus particles to share with our neighborhoods. That can only be done by enough financial support from government borrowing to keep small businesses and individuals from sinking down to survival level as we wait for the time of vaccine created herd immunity to the virus.

    The first of their acts that I’m looking forward to is the first competent cabinet since Obama, filled with experts in their fields who know how to work with the deep state to restore each department to their correct and necessary functions of both supervising and supporting businesses to make sure that all business stakeholders are treated with their due: customers, workers, investors, communities, taxpayers, government, future users of the environment, supply chain partners, etc. That must include a Secretary of State who builds alliances with those who have progress as common goal rather than destroying them.

    Very early reform that has to be a high priority is campaign financing and election reform that restores democracy as an operative fact rather than a distant goal. That may or may not have to include addressing the Roberts Court based on their ability to demonstrate objectivity in their decisions.

    Just restoring competence and expertise in government will go a long way to restoring the path to progress for our country and all of its people.

  14. Einstein was a great scientist in his field of physics but an average political scientist. I as a slightly left of center Democrat thought his observations were sound but some of his conclusions drawn therefrom faulty, and as for Todd’s reference to the “hierarchical power structure,” any such structure, including the one he might wish to establish, becomes such a “structure” from the standpoint of contemporary wannabe structures.

    Government as a “power structure” derives its power in a representative demoracy from the consent of the governed, even though we may decry how such consent is obtained, since at some point we have to rely on the principle of representative democracy inasmuch as there are too many of us to fit into some Athenian agora and have a truly democratic meeting (“truly” sans women and slaves).

    Thus Washington was against having political parties on grounds that citizens would have more allegiance to party than to country. He was right for a time when we had a total of some four million inhabitants scattered along our Eastern seaboard but I think he would have a different view today with three hundred thirty million citizens from sea to shining sea, though whether he would choose political parties as an organizing means of fleshing out representative democracy I can’t know, and candidly, I cannot think of an alternative means short of some authoritarian scheme (since dictators need not share power with legislative and judicial branches). It’s a bad scheme, but a scheme.

    I have therefore concluded that the present system with all it flaws and injustices can be tolerated if we end the wage and wealth inequality that inhere in the rich and corporate class and end class, gender and racial distinctions, all while remaining open to further changes as circumstances may suggest or demand. Can’t be done? (Think Nordic governing and Geneva, Switzerland’s $25 per hour minimum wage.)

  15. The GOP constituency is the Dunning-Kruger effect run amok.

    They “know” that government is corrupt and working against them. They “know” that rich people are the smartest and best people. They “know” that conspiracy theories are true. They “know” that the answer to gun violence is more guns. They “know” that Christians are the persecuted group. They “know” that reading Facebook or watching Youtube is the same as investigative research. They “know” that picking a person who matches their understanding of the world–Donald Trump–is the perfect choice for president.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    Well, actually, I do. It’s “cry.”

  16. When the Democratic party endorses trickle-down economics, I will know that Todd is right.

    When the Republican party rejects trickle-down economics, I will know that we have a new and better Republican party. Until then, and only then, the Republican party can ‘reform’ and ‘reform’ ad infinitum, but I will know it’s sinful core idea still remains.

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