A Philosopher's Blog

Political Candidates & Expertise

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2015

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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15 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 21, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Rand Paul is an M.D. So is his father Ron, who also ran for POTUS.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 22, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      True. But Rand and Ron are not amateur politicians-they are both professionals. Rand is getting clobbered-he seems less charismatic than his father. But, he is competing with Trump for many of the same voters-and no one Trumps the Trump.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 23, 2015 at 4:37 pm

        The first time Rand Paul has held elected office is now, having won his US Senate seat in 2010. That would make him an amateur. He’s not a professional politician, he’s an eye doctor. Interestingly enough, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is also an eye doctor.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 24, 2015 at 4:45 pm

          He has almost 5 years of experience, though.

          Coincidence? There are no coincidences. 😉

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 24, 2015 at 8:43 pm

            5 years hardly makes him a professional politician. Granted, Trump and Carson have never been elected to any public office. Rand has been elected once, recently.

  2. TJB said, on September 23, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Mike, following up on our earlier discussion….it is clear that Hillary does not support any restriction on abortion. Also likely that Planned Parenthood has the exact same position.

    As the Senate prepares to vote tomorrow on a bill banning abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy, the point at which human infants can feel pain and survive if born prematurely, Hillary Clinton has expressed opposition to legal limits on abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

    John Dickerson, CBS’s host of Face the Nation, asked Clinton during an interview on Sunday: “The Senate’s going to vote to impose a ban on late-term abortions. Do you support a federal limit on abortion at any stage of pregnancy?”

    “I think that the kind of late-term abortions that take place are because of medical necessity, and therefore I would hate to see the government interfering with that decision,” Clinton replied. “This gets back to whether you respect a woman’s right to choose or not, and I think that’s what this whole argument is about.”


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 24, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      Her comments do not entail that she does not support any restrictions on abortion. However, they do indicate that she supports late term abortions. But, of course, I cannot be certain about whether or not she does not support any restriction on abortion.

      The question could be taken as asking about the specific ban (which she answered) or moving off the start of the question to the general question about any ban (which she did not answer).

      But, I am not backing Hilary at this point and abortion is not my primary issue.

      • TJB said, on September 24, 2015 at 11:09 pm

        Mike, she was asked “Do you support a federal limit on abortion at any stage of pregnancy?”

        She answered: “I would hate to see the government interfering with that decision.”

        Where is the ambiguity?

        • TJB said, on September 24, 2015 at 11:10 pm

          Why do you have trouble believing that Hillary and PP believe in unrestricted abortion?

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm

            I don’t think Hillary is a moral monster, so I don’t think she would back unrestricted abortion in the strict sense-that is, abortion up to the second before birth. I also don’t think that most folks in PP are moral monsters.

            Now, I could be wrong-there are plenty of monsters in the world.

            But, you should really take this up with PP and Hillary. I’m not on the payroll for either nor do I have special access to their secret agendas.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 28, 2015 at 5:04 pm

          Context matters. But, as I noted, the answer could justly be taken as referring to that specific limit rather than all limits.

          Again, I don’t have any stake in Clinton’s campaign, so you should take it up with her.

  3. ronster12012 said, on September 23, 2015 at 10:11 am

    What were the professional qualifications of some of your other notable presidents? Reagan…actor, JFK….?, Lincoln….lawyer(nuff said), Jefferson…farmer, Washington…..farmer and military leader. So does it matter? Is it possible to know whether someone will be a good president till they get there or in other words, does the office make the man?

  4. TJB said, on September 23, 2015 at 10:35 am

    There is probably no job that adequately prepares one to be president. Most likely some experience running a large organization is helpful. As far as I can tell, the big difference “experienced” politicians have compared to private sector folks is that the politicians are used to being criticized and second guessed at every step. Private sector folks are not used to this and it often gets under their skin.

    • ronster12012 said, on September 25, 2015 at 9:50 am


      The problem with ‘experienced’ politicians is their political debts. How many owe favours for their political existence? You and I mist likely will never know. The last thing that the actual powerbrokers want is someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything.

      • TJB said, on September 25, 2015 at 1:21 pm

        The motto of the politicos: “Never trust a man who can’t be bribed.”

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