Why Americans vote for underqualified politicians

I just had a thought today and I thought I’d share it with you guys and see what you have to say about it.

I got to thinking about what the hell is wrong with America, and why we have such a fascination with electing “normal people” to the highest of offices possible in the US Government. In a way it’s almost like populism. The GOP took George W Bush and turned him from a rich kid of a former President who had by all means every thing going in his favor in life before he was ever born, into a guy that people felt they could relate with. And in some sense, I believe that Bush himself felt he was like this. But the key idea was to make GWB into a guy you’d want to have a beer with, which resonates deeply with the American public.

I’d also say that this is what made people like Clinton to a certain extent. Bill Clinton that is.

Now we have McCain and Palin. Now really I don’t think McCain fits this bill at all, which is actually why I think he was having trouble before picking Palin. Americans want someone as President that they can relate to. It’s a pretty stupid way of picking a President but I feel like it’s largely true.

At any rate, there are a couple of reasons why I feel that Americans choose “someone like them” as their leaders, and I want give my opinions about it for the debate.

On the one hand I feel that people prefer the “guy like me” approach because they think that Washington is fundementally flawed and that everyone there is tainted. I don’t think that this is the true reason for it though.

I think that the real reason that Americans prefer their presidential candidates to be low brow is because it validates the American Dream. I think that the American Dream is a large part of the reason why Americans actually tolerate the situation with regards to inequality and poverty.

The American Dream suggests that everyone is able to make something of himself, therefore the converse of it suggests that to some extent everyone is responsible for his or her own failure. This is one of the reasons I believe that so many people are tolerant of poverty. It’s their fault they couldn’t make do with the opportunities we all have.

I feel that this ideal of the American Dream is what spurs the idea of always liking the underdog to win in America. We always like to see people beat the odds, proving that even you can succeed. And this is what I believe largely drives people to vote for politicians that are either clearly not qualified (like Sarah Palin) or those who are simply pretending to be like the average guy (Like GWB). Because deep down we’d like to believe is that all it takes is determination and soundness of character to succeed in this country. After all, our folklore is full of people who have made riches based on such characteristics. And we select for these stories of people becoming successful that were just like normal people. It’s almost like we need to reaffirm this time and again.

At any rate, this is why I think Palin is so popular. I also think that for the first time in a long time, neither of the two candidates actually possess this trait. Obama, while resisting being painted as an “elitist” and looking down on the little guy, doesn’t also try to appeal to the little guy like Kerry and his ridiculous photo-ops (Hunting, playing football?!).

McCain sort of carries this banner, but only because of the “Maverick” label. That’s really the only part of this he complies with. But he doesn’t come across like Bush at all. Obama is precluded from this because he grew up overseas. His story is really an example of the American dream come true, but for the people who care about it, it doesn’t fit the bill.


That’s an interesting post. Your depiction of them is quite generous. I’d have described the problem more as arrogant anti-intellectualism. But the two may be related.

The American love for common folks as leaders goes back at least to Andrew Jackson and other prominent politicians who were Born In A Log Cabin. Heck, it probably goes back to the American Revolution, and a distrust of monarchy and nobility.

They all satisfied the basic requirements, didn’t they? So they’re not underqualified. But beyond that, could it be that for many people a judgement of character is as important as a judgement of qualifications?

Because no one really qualified would run for office. If you can do it you are out in the real world doing it…if not you basically run for office. Besides…what constitutes ‘qualified’? Since most fields are pretty narrowly focused, it’s going to be impossible for anyone to meet all the qualifications that a President would need…it’s simply to big a job for anyone to be qualified on more than a few aspects. That’s kind of why Presidents build a cabinet and have advisers and all.

In a Democracy it’s all about how popular you are with the citizens voting for you…and rarely are they going to vote based on a bullet list of qualifications.


You realize that that’s an argument in favor of rule by aristocracy, right?

Yes but see this is the thing. It is actually kind of rare for elections to follow this pattern in Western Democracies. Look at Europe. At least on the continent it’s completely accepted that a politician is a politician. Their elections usually end up between two people who have been groomed their entire lives to be President. They rarely make any appeal to seem like a “common man” and those that do gain little traction. France has their elite schools and their future Presidents come through the system. People in Europe tend to vote a lot more based on issues than anything else. Jean Marie LePen would have been playing that card, but as you can see, he loses due to his positions.

I suppose I should not have written under-qualified. That’s not really the problem with the “guy you want to have a beer with candidate” because in reality they can be competent and qualified. However their appeal doesn’t depend on their qualifications. The way I stated it in the OP makes it sound as if that’s what annoys me about it. Like I said, I don’t think that GWB was under qualified. What I find annoying is that it seems to take precedence over qualification.

Maybe the appropriate word would be that Americans always want to vote for the politician that plays to the populist sentiment? It’s the “I’m not better than you! vote for me!” appeal. Bush had it despite not really enacting anything populist at all. People don’t really want economic populism as much as they want cultural populism. Nobody wants a President who comes off as if he’s better than them. It feels like a visceral reaction. Really, anyone who can garner support can be President. It’s just curious that Americans prefer to choose politicians who they feel is representative of themselves rather than strictly on the issues that should matter.

So I suppose under qualified is the wrong word here. But we’re unusual compared to other western democracies and I’m just trying to piece together why.

It just seems like we fight our culture wars through the Presidency. Maybe that’s the reason because we fear that the wrong type of guy will bring about all kinds of things we don’t agree with?

Can you clarify this? Are you saying that Obama, or McCain, don’t have any real world skills?

That’s why.

In the United States, each Senator or Representative represents a state or district, and runs for re-election in that state or district every two or six years. Hence each one of them needs to do something that appeals to the people.

In most other democracies, the governing body is the Parliment and each voter casts a vote for a party. The party nominates a slate of candidates for Parliment. Hence the lawmakers are not directly responsible to a specific group of voters.

The result of such a system is that most politicians in most countries are assured of remaining in power. If a party holds 150 seats in Parliment, there are ony a handful of those 150 lawmakers who are in any danger of losing their seats in the next election. Hence, career politicians are the rule.

Americans resist career politicians because they don’t want to see their government become like the others. (Of course we end up with mainly career politicians anyway, but we like to pretend otherwise.)

Well, a literal “rule by the best” *would *be the best form of government. So, theoretically, an aristocracy would be awesome.

The only problem is that the only way we’ve found to pick the best leaders is to elect the people who run for office. But I think what **xtisme **is saying is that the kind of personality which would be best at running the technical details of the country often doesn’t seriously want to deal with the stress of campaigning and administration. You know, the, “The managers may get paid more than me, but at least I enjoy my job,” line of thinking.

Vox Imperatoris

On the other hand, a William F. Buckley/George Will ticket would have at least have had clever, well-written ads.

It makes perfect sense to me that a voter would pick a candidate most like himself/herself. It’s not identity politics, its just pragmatic. If I can’t be at the draft to pick my fantasy football team and I need a proxy it makes sense to pick a good friend who is also a Packer fan over the editor in chief of Fanball.com magazine.

In other democracies, each voter casts a vote for a Member of Parliament, not for a party. They are very definitely voting for the lawmakers, who are in fact directly responsible to a specific group of voters. If one party holds a majority in parliament, then they can vote in a prime minister, who is equivalent to a President of Domestic Affairs with Some Foreign Affairs Thrown in but That’s Also the Home Secretary or the President Depending on Your Democracy. If a party holds only a plurality, they must form a coalition with one or more other parties in order to elect a prime minister. In no case of which I am aware do people vote for a party alone.

People are always voting for an individual and that individual is always responsible directly to the people who voted for him or her.

That doesn’t make any sense. Would you rather have someone perform surgery on you because he is, “like you” or would you have an architect build your house because he’s “like you.” If you ignored evidence that such people were incompetent, or at least not as good as others in their field you’d be considered a fool to choose to use their services.

I tend to pick people to do such things because they are the best I can afford / find. People research such things and make an informed choice. Choosing someone because they seem like you seems to be the stupidest way to make any decision outside of personal relationships.

I’m going to take a stab at this, but I realize that this is just my own personal opinion.

We did this to ourselves. We make elections too much of a popularity contest. We let mudslinging sway our opinions way too much. I don’t have a problem with politicians pointing at reasonable faults or questionable statements and records by the other guy, but it gets out of hand. Theres a line to drawn somewhere in that, I don’t know exactly where it is, but I know both parties cross it often in elections.

We also have too many stupid people that can vote. By stupid I mean people who still say Obama is a muslim, or will vote for whatever candidate is the one they’d like to watch football with. Seriously, who fuckin’ cares about that? Its an intersting sidenote at best, but at the end of the day, I want a president that can make good decisions and has the welfare of the country…THE WHOLE country, not just the richest of the country…at heart. Or folks that are still pissed because HRC didn’t get the nomination, claiming some kind of injustice against women. I hate to say it, but i think thats just plain dumb.

We get too into our “team”. People that don’t consider the issues and just vote for whoever because its “my” party. I’ll admit, I am not a republican voter. I do have a certain bias about them from my own life experiences…but if I thought McCain McCain was a better choice I’d vote for him. Now i know there are people that do think he is, and thats great…as long as they are not voting for him just because they don’t want “their side to lose”. I wish we had a viable 3rd party sometimes.

We let politicians piss on us and tell us its raining. Blatantly. Yeah, I’m looking at you “We’re not going to cooperate with the Troopergate investigation” Palin. She’s not the only one of course, but still…

We cannot stand to be wrong. I really hate the whole “Image of the country” thing. You know why? because if you’re wrong, and its obvious to everyone you’re wrong…admit it! I respect a person more that says “Hey, I fucked up.” more than a person that says “Nope. Not my fault. I’m always right!”. People that defend invading Iraq fit that role. Hell, Richard Nixon was a jackass and I heard some people still praising him like he was a hero until his death. You know, I don’t care if he went to China or whatever…he was still scummy. but some are willing to overlook that. Shit, Bush is substandard at best but some folks think he’s a good president. (not a lot, admittedly, but you get my drift.)

Og…and everyone would be happier if we kept religion out of politics.

I’m sorry if i ranted. I just got back from a pre Oktoberfest party and while i didn’t drink a lot, I have a low tolerance for german beer. Especially ones that come by the liter.


Seriously, this is an amazing point.

Every election we vote for two candidates from one–er, two parties. These two candidates went through countless filters. The only reason these candidates appear before us is because powerful people want them there. Their qualifications are the least of the problem.

This country is already run by an aristocracy. They control the federal bureaucracy. We went from a limited national government with strong and independent states to concentrating all the political power in the hands of a cadre of Ivy League elites in D.C. Electing some huckster is the only method of infiltration the common American has.

My dad’s a member of the federal bureaucracy. He’s a grocer’s son whose college degree comes from taking night classes at a small, not very famous local school while he worked and helped raise a family during the day. So it’s not like he, at least, comes from old money.

Or are you talking about the cabinet? Because, if so, lets look at their family backgrounds.

The Secretary of State, who grew up black in segregated Alabama, is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was also, at various points, a high school guidance counselor and assistant dean at the University of Denver, and his wife, a high school science and music teacher.

The Secretary of the Treasury is the son of a jewelry wholesaler.

The Secretary of Defense’s father sold automobile parts.

The Attorney General’s father, an uneducated Jewish immigrant from Russia, worked in New York Garment District.

The Sec. of the Interior’s father owned a medical supply company.

The Sec. of Agriculture’s father created the company that invented Mr. Bubble.

The Sec. of Commerce is a refugee from Cuba, who’s parents’ plantation was siezed by the Castro government.

The Secretary of Labor is an immigrant from Taiwan, who’s father was a businessman.

I could go on, but you get my point. None of these people are particularly from elite families.

Those nations aren’t populated by people obsessed with ideas of equality, with a general deep-seated mistrust of all things aristocratic.

Those who venerate WASPS and feel proud of “American royalty” like the Kennedys are a minority (not that all fans of the Kennedys are fans due to the American royalty element.)