I was tempted to call this post “The Stranger,” but it has been so long since I’ve read my Camus that I wouldn’t even do a bad job with my homages, satirical asides, and atrocious puns. So, I settled for “The Outsider” …
… the political outsider, that is.
A great many Americans seem to relish the idea of sending a political “outsider” to Washington (or wherever) as the solution to what they view as a dysfunctional political system that fails to give them everything they want, exactly the way they want it, the instant they want it. These people – and they are found at every level and extremity on both the political left and political right side of the spectrum – strike me, at least, as standing out most for their complete failure to grasp politics at any level. I want to say a few words here about why I am convinced that the “outsider” fetishism is so profoundly wrong-headed.
The idea that being an “outsider” to politics is somehow a virtue betrays one of the worst sorts of argumentum ad vericundiam imaginable. Having zero experience, training, education, or competence in a discipline or practice is not an argument for taking executive command in that discipline.
Perhaps the closest we have ever come in this country to a true “outsider” occupying the top executive office of the country was Woodrow Wilson. Yet Wilson was hardly a genuine outsider to political processes. Besides earning a Ph.D. in Political Science, Wilson was the President of Princeton University and, in the few years between that job and the Presidency of the United States, he was elected as governor of New Jersey. Indeed, as anyone who has ever worked within higher education knows, the ranks of both faculty and administration are constantly driven by matters of a purely and genuinely political nature. This fact is increasingly lost on contemporary upper administrators in higher-ed, who are motivated by a business model that has no basis in reality, or grasp of education as a process or vocation. (For details on this issue, see Marc Bousquet, How The University Works. I encourage folks to actually purchase the book, because it is an important work, and the author deserves to be rewarded for that effort. But I feel compelled to point out that it can be downloaded for free. For the record, I have a paper copy, but it is in storage. In addition to Bousquet’s contemporary work, Thornton Veblen’s classic The Higher Learning in America is essential for showing how what is old is new again; the ideological foie gras that would that would treat college as a business, professors as employees, students as customers, and education as a product, is a savagely relentless piece of grotesque stupidity that mere logic, principles, evidence, and facts, have done little to destroy.
One other contender for the title of outsider might be Ronald Reagan. But, here again, the crown hangs loosely upon a brow that bore a brain which would not fill a thimble. Reagan was no outsider to politics; quite aside from his tenure as the head of his own actors’ union, the union busting politician enjoyed multiple stays in the California Governor’s mansion before moving on to the White House. It speaks to his “qualities” that no one, beyond his closest associates, noticed that his mind was delaminating from Alzheimer’s until the fact was publicly announced well after his retirement. Clearly success in politics does not depend on how intact one’s mental faculties happen to be.
“Politics,” as a merely generic activity, is often something we all must do – in business, in academia, in personal interactions. But POLITICS as an explicit task of social commitment and governance, is a career that requires genuine expertise. (For the remainder, I will capitalize and italicize the word when I mean to differentiate the actual career and calling from the pathetic compromises and sniveling that we all occasionally engage in.) It is a vocation of public service, of balance, negotiation, and compromise, that requires its own kind of finesse, nuance, and subtlety. The examples of Wilson and Reagan were offered precisely to emphasize the point that even the outsiders aren’t real outsiders.
And here is a fact about genuine outsiders: the fact that they are “genuinely” outside POLITICS means that they have never before entertained the thought either of public service, or of public service. Notice that it needs to be said at least twice, with the emphasis placed individually on each half.
There has always been a surfeit of business people who imagine that their successes in business (which are themselves, often enough, merely imagined) qualify them for POLITICS. Such persons more or less universally exist in a walled city of their own making, unbreachable by any petard of (as I mentioned above) mere logic, principles, evidence, or facts.
So, for example, many successful business people imagine themselves to be experts on economic issues. This seems to be especially true of those “successful” business people who were born rich. Examples come to mind, although for at least one of them, it seems that the only thing the individual in question does well is manipulate bankruptcy laws for private advantage. What is most striking about such persons, however, is that they have never served any one or any thing other than themselves, and they’ve certainly never served the public in any form whatsoever. And it is worth bearing in mind here that it requires almost no real intelligence to make one’s self richer once one has been born wealthy. Anyone can do a victory lap once they’ve had the race handed to them.
It is, perhaps, a pattern – although a study is needed to confirm this hypothesis, or even give it substantial credibility – that those poseurs who would self-identify themselves as political “outsiders” even as they attempt to insert themselves into a career for which they’ve never had any training or experience, are also the types who score high on the scales of narcissism and sociopathy. Among the career types that draw the largest percentage of sociopaths, we find CEO and surgeon. Obviously any claims made on this point would be foolish, but it is still the kind of thing that might provoke a person to wonder, that it requires an exceptional, even sociopathic, level of narcissism for persons with no background in public service to just egotistically declare themselves for the highest executive position in the country.
So, finally, here is the thing: politics is, at a dead minimum, a career. When fulfilled honestly and w/o qualification, it is a vocation. Originally, the term “vocation” literally meant a calling from God, a pure movement of the spirit that this thing is what one is absolutely destined and intended to do. One need not have any religious leanings to still appreciate the idea of a person having a calling. To answer this calling is no small thing, because it is a call to public service; to public service. In any case, one useful observation emerges from all of this: outsiders, by virtue of being outsiders, have no grasp of what public service entails, having rejected any of the understandings or commitments that would actually make such a job a calling. Having rejected any thought of actually learning what public service entails, outsiders who would presume to start “at the top” demonstrate nothing beyond their own infantile, self-absorbed narcissism.
- The psychological literature seems to have rejected the word “sociopath” almost entirely, and substituted instead the term “psychopath”. This is as inexplicable and wrong-headed a move as any you could care to name. The term “psychopath” used to be focused on people who were genuinely insane, but now it is being used to cover the gamut from real madness to cognizant, but extreme, self-centeredness. I can neither find, not even imagine, any intelligible reason for conflating psychopathic and sociopathic traits under a single term in this manner. So while this is a battle I’ve already lost, I refuse to use the term “psychopathic” in such a gratuitously and indefensibly expanded sense. One uses different terms because one is marking a real difference; using the term “psychopath” in this promiscuous fashion serves no rational purpose.