During the 1980 presidential campaign that pitted the incumbent Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan, I was visiting a family in Belgium. A wealthy relative of the family asked me, with clear relish, “Who are you voting for, the peanut farmer or the B movie actor?” I took the slam as politely as I could, but I have never forgotten the incident and I have never come up with a decent answer to the critical question hidden behind that derisive query: why does the United States not demand more experience and training and expertise of its presidential candidates? We choose as presidents people with little talent or, if talented, little experience. We accept as candidates the wildest assortment of extremists and egomaniacs and a veritable army of the ill-informed and out-of-touch. It is said that the genius of the founders was to create a system of government that is brilliant when run by capable hands and adequate even in the hands of the incompetent, and we test the truth of that statement all too frequently.
The reasons for this quirk in the American character are likely hidden deep in the psyches of the average citizen. We like to see ourselves as devoid of class structures, average Joes and Josephines, people of the earth, common folk. We more often demand of our candidates that they be born in a log cabin than that they had any suitable training to run the most powerful county in the world. We brag about humble beginnings and hardscrabble upbringings as if they were advantages, and we deride wealth and high-level education as indicating that those with such advantages are “out of touch.” We demand of our candidates that they hang out in coffee shops, wear blue jeans and practice droppin’ their word endin’s.
The nonsensical character of all this is on full display in the present presidential campaign. We have, as a Republican front runner, a man with absolutely no political experience whatsoever. He is being attacked by two people whose every speech tells of their rise from poverty and oppression and by a retired neurosurgeon. The one truly experienced politician in the bunch brings up the rear in every primary.
The Democrat candidates present an entirely different picture, and they are roundly criticized for it. Bernie Sanders has had a lifetime of commitment to public service. He marched with Martin Luther King. He opposed the war in Iraq. He led the struggle against deregulation and the concentration of wealth in a few. Hilary Clinton has spent her entire adult life in public service: as wife and partner of a governor and a president, as a senator and a secretary of state. She knows more about national and international politics than, quite likely, any person living. And what does that get these two? Condemnation as “insiders.” God forbid that we should elect a president who actually has some knowledge of how to do the job.
The sad fact in America is that the position of president is purchased, and the buyers have been getting just what they paid for. The moneyed interests who elected George Bush and who purchased the seats of numerous members of Congress are once again pouring money out to preserve their programs of wealth concentration and the impoverishment of the masses. Not having to drive the potholes of America’s roads, they fight investment in infrastructure. Not interested in educating our youth, they fight investments in education and encourage the wasting away of our public schools. Most of all, not caring about anything but the continued increase in their wealth, they blindly deride all efforts to provide basic healthcare and make the other investments that would improve the lot of the average citizen. The financial elite want, not experience and ingenuity, but ownership. The last thing the hugely rich who hide in the organizations allowed by Citizens United is someone who actually understands and cares about the needs of the average American.
We, the people, have some serious problems. We all need basic health care, and we need to get it at a reasonable price. We all need good basic education. We all need decent infrastructure, drivable roads and trustable bridges. We need a sustainable atmosphere. And we need jobs that pay a decent wage. To do all of this, we need to increase the national income in order to pay for it. We have lived off the national credit card far too long. I frankly have no idea how to do that, but I am quite sure that we will not provide the needed funds by cutting taxes. The other thing I am sure of is that we will not even begin to solve this country’s critical problems by electing someone unprepared for the job.
So who are you going to vote for? The melon cutter or the reality tv star?