The Cult of the Political Outsider
On Wednesday night the Republican Presidential hopefuls faced off in another debate. I understand most of you were busy: it was a work night, the World Series was on, and God knows I was busy making last minute preparations for National Cat Day. Ultimately, the night was hardly illuminating, though Jeb Bush did promise to give people a "warm kiss," which ranks precisely between "gift card for Long John Silver’s" and "just a touch of mono" on the list of worst gifts ever. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the debate was that the two frontrunners had not served a day in office. In what has already been called "the year of the outsider," Republicans neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesspeople Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, none of whom have ever been elected to office, command as much as 63 percent of the Republican Primary voters. One of the most common questions I’ve had people ask me this election is "Why are Trump, Carson and other political outsiders doing so well?"
In a way, the rise of the outsiders was inevitable. The past fifty years have made Americans distrusting of government. Watergate, Vietnam, Lewinsky, Iraq and the Great Recessions are all chapters in a story that tells the American people that the government will fail you, and will lie to you while failing. Acolytes of Reagan, Limbaugh and Fox News spent years arguing that conservatism meant, not merely support of a cautious, limited government, but instead a radical party that viewed government itself as a typically unnecessary evil. Eventually, GOP voters reached the point where government was so dirty, that candidates became more attractive the less time they spent in it. That’s why people like Bush and Kasich, candidates with strong records of leading government, are wasting their time by throwing around their political resumes, or talking about how politicians endorsed them: association with government is a curse, not a blessing, for the GOP.
Enter the outsiders. For voters who think government is destined to fail, a business guy who ‘gets stuff done’ is just what the country needs. For voters not into the showmanship of Trump, Ben Carson is close by, ready to wake up from his perpetual walking nap and talk about his experience as a neurosurgeon. In a party where 65 percent of its members view government as an immediate threat to the country, the fact that 63 percent of them support political outsiders is about as unsurprising as finding out the ending to Titanic or hearing that the next Tim Burton movie will be starring Johnny Depp.
Outsiders aren’t unheard of in politics. Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Herman Cain all challenged the Republican establishment, had their moment in the sun and then lost to the more moderate frontrunner. Pundits have predicted that Trump and Carson will follow this same path. The problem is that they don’t show any signs of falling apart: Trump has led nationally for one hundred days. That is longer that Mitt Romney ever led his challengers leading into the primary season. While Trump’s numbers may slip, his voters have so far refused to defect despite controversial statements, unorthodox views, attacks from other candidates or mixed debate performances. Carson’s support is much softer, with seventy percent of his supporters claiming to have not made up their minds yet, and it would be easy to imagine his numbers collapsing as voters move to the next fad. Nevertheless, it seems that, perhaps more than any other modern election, GOP voters are determined to become the party that is anti-Washington, anti-government, and anti-experience.
This is problematic for several reasons. First, it’s unclear how someone who has never served in government would be prepared to lead government. If you were choosing a doctor, you wouldn’t pick the guy without any experience; Ben Carson didn’t show up to an operating room boasting about being 'a medical outsider.’ Your health is better off if you have an experienced doctor, just as the country is better off with an experienced leader: having Ben Carson lead your government makes as much sense as having Lincoln Chafee remove your gallbladder. Experience in government shows that a candidate has a history of fulfilling their promises, making right decisions, and passing agendas that make people’s lives better.
Furthermore, outsider candidates, with no record to defend and no experience making their ideas political realities, often suggest and support ridiculous policy proposals. Trump’s manifesto at this point is well known: making Mexico pay for a great wall on the border, a secret plan to destroy ISIS, mass deportations and a tax plan that would increase the debt by trillions. Carson’s proposals veer from murky to unrealistic: a ten percent tax similar to a Biblical tithe, ending Medicaid and Medicare, demanding that Muslims renounce their faith in order to run for President, and calling Obamacare the ‘worst thing since slavery.’ Even for those who agree with that agenda, with no experience passing legislation, and a general unwillingness to compromise, it’s unclear if anything could even passed under the outsiders. This country, between gun violence, debt, racial strife, and a slew of other issues, faces serious problems that demand serious thinking. I am not convinced that the outsiders can ever provide that.
Perhaps most frightening is that they could win. Carson will likely fade, Fiorina will likely fail to gain traction and Trump will probably be passed up by Rubio and Cruz. However, Trump is the frontrunner, has been for a while, and his supporters show little sign of leaving. If, say, establishment conservatives are split between Rubio, Bush and Kasich, Trump could win a plurality of states. For Republicans and Democrats, such a thought should be sobering. It doesn’t have to be this way: the Republicans have their strongest field in recent memory and have plenty of better candidates available. Regardless of your political stripe, it should be evident why, since the founding, almost all Presidents have had government experience. Outsiders should be left outside, and governing should be left to those in government.