Lawyers have to demonstrate their competency. So do doctors, psychologists, and a whole range of skilled professionals. You can’t so much as become a transcriptionist earning minimum wage without taking a typing and spelling test; why should you be able to become leader of the free world without meeting any criteria whatsoever other than providing evidence you were born at least 35 years ago in the United States? (Well, that and the hard part: getting yourself voted into office. Which probably involves, most importantly, beaming a photogenic and charming persona into TV sets everywhere and convincing viewers your opponent was deposited on the planet by a bat out of hell.) We don’t grant health care professionals power over our lives unless they’ve demonstrated expertise in their field, for the same reason we don’t get onto planes flown by untrained pilots, however good their intentions; why should we grant politicians power over all of our lives on much more slender bases?
The arguments in favor of licensing exams seem overwhelming to me (setting aside the practical obstacle of how such a policy would be implemented, considering that the legislators who would have to approve it would be the very people it would affect most directly). For the highest levels of government I think such an exam should at least entail sections on economics, political science, some American history thrown in for good measure, and international affairs, to be supplemented by topics deemed relevant depending on the most pressing issues of the time, such as Islam or environmental science. Obviously a president’s cabinet members exist to provide additional expertise on a range of subjects, but ideally I think their expertise should complement the president’s own solid foundation.
Certainly a written exam could never serve as an ideal assessment of who is most qualified for office. And a number of practical considerations–such as creating a board of examiners to write and assess the exam–would have to be thought through. In addition to an abstract academic level of expertise, optimal candidates should probably be natural leaders, personable and effective negotiators, and honest individuals. And concrete experience in government, in addition to merely abstract experience of the issues, is certainly helpful–although the latter should surely be a minimum requirement. But the exam would only serve as a gateway to candidacy, not as a final determinant for who landed the job.
You might argue that an exam caters to academic sensibilities and is fundamentally elitist. I guess I don’t see why we wouldn’t want elites to run our country. I personally would like to have a president who is smarter and more informed than I am. If they’re serious about filling the office, why not take the time to acquire and demonstrate knowledge relevant to the job? Such a test wouldn’t require that they earn advanced degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (although that might be nice). But it would probably require that they at least walk into a public library or get on Amazon.com, institutions that even the underprivileged but scintillatingly brilliant Abe Lincolns out there in their log cabins should be able to access. If they’re not able or willing to master the intricacies of the economy, I would suggest that it’s no more unfair to disqualify them for candidacy than it is unfair to expel from medical school students unable or unwilling to study the functions of the nervous system.
In a sense this is perhaps a dangerous and anti-democratic sentiment: to some degree I would be deferring my judgment as a voter to a board of examiners. Such a proposal is predicated on the assumption that a team of experts would be more qualified to assess political competence than the general public, and what’s to prevent corruption among the examiners? Such issues would certainly have to be taken into consideration. But we already believe in checks on democracy, the most prominent of which when it comes to the presidential election–the electoral college–fails entirely to fulfill its designated function (preventing idiots from voting idiots into office).
Once political hopefuls had qualified for candidacy, nothing would necessarily stop us from continuing to run our elections like protracted national pageants designed to find new anchors for Access Hollywood, or circuslike sporting events complete with gladiatorial debates, boxing-ring interviews, and commentators providing play-by-play reports and holding forth on the most savvy way for candidates to score political touchdowns. But who knows? Perhaps, given this additional (albeit crude) data on candidates’ qualifications, we’d spend more time wondering why Senator Greasysmile was unable to locate Iran on a map (assuming he wasn’t eliminated in round 1 as a result of this failure) and less time contemplating why his great-grandmother thrice removed put a jewel in her navel and bowed down to bronze idols of werewolves by the light of the full moon. Because, in the end, while the latter is certainly more titillating, the less entertaining, less easily grasped issues probably make more of a difference in how President Greasysmile, once elected, will fulfill his responsibilities.
- 23 September 2008