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?
Donald Trump cashed in on it. The fevered speculation surrounding Oprah Winfrey after her Golden Globes speech sprang from it. And Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor of New York depends on it.
A few weeks ago, Nixon, a brilliant actress best known for the HBO series “Sex and the City,” stepped forward to challenge the incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, in this year’s Democratic primary. Her announcement took the form of a video about her biography and her values. Missing from those two slickly produced minutes was even a syllable about her experience, and that’s no accident. Little on her résumé is directly relevant to the big, difficult job that she nonetheless wants.
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.
I know that politics isn’t brain surgery (though Ben Carson clearly knows that even better). I also know that much of what’s going on with Winfrey and Nixon – and what went on with Trump – is about the lazy deference to celebrities in these fame-mad times.
When I asked Thomas Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” to explain the acceptance of entertainers as political sages, he noted their treatment as all-purpose oracles, saying, “Why do people think they should take advice from Gwyneth Paltrow about steaming their vaginas?” He was referring to an actual lifestyle tip that Paltrow dished out on her website Goop.
Much of what’s going on also reflects cynicism about the status quo. “It is appalling that we are a country that has descended into a complete disregard for expertise,” said Michael Specter, author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.” “But is this a rejection of reality or a rejection of politics? To argue that actual politicians are useless, so let’s try something else, is not completely insane.”
Indeed it’s not. On top of which, many experiences other than lower-level government work can be useful, as Michael Bloomberg’s New York mayoralty and Ronald Reagan’s California governorship show. I’d argue that Winfrey now has a sturdier claim on office than Reagan did when he ran for governor. But she would be aiming straight for the presidency. That’s a bit much, as Trump has amply demonstrated.
Plenty of Democrats accused Nixon of similar overreach. Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council, was among them. In a bizarrely worded comment to The New York Post, she called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian” who had failed to support her, a “qualified lesbian,” when she ran for mayor in 2013. Quinn later apologized for bringing sexual orientation into the discussion, but she isn’t backing down from her assessment that Nixon’s accomplishments as an actress and dedication as an activist aren’t adequate credentials. Nor should she.
“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, ‘OK, 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.
“They say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts,’” he said at one rally. “The experts are terrible!” He noted that critics wanted him to get an experienced foreign policy adviser. “But supposing I didn’t have one, would it be worse than what we’re doing now?” Many voters thought not. He soon moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he began the practice of hiring people based on their looks, their television profile and their quickness to flatter him. Credentials were a second or even fifth thought.
In the context of that cavalier attitude, it’s reckless to embrace Nixon’s candidacy as an intriguing experiment or colorful sidebar. While the political arena needs some fresh faces and demands many fresh ideas, there are entry points more appropriate than the governor’s mansion – the House of Representatives, for example, where the number of players and the availability of mentorship argue for a mix of newbies and old-timers and for a gallery of backgrounds both inside and outside of politics.
And while Cuomo deserves fierce opposition, it would ideally come from someone who doesn’t reinforce the notion that preparation is overrated. That’s what Nixon’s ambition does, and that’s why I had the same reservations when Alec Baldwin was supposedly eyeing the New York City mayoralty. Genius in one arena doesn’t guarantee competence in another.
Experience is no fail-safe either, but it’s the better bet.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service