The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

What happens when the federal government is run by amateurs?

Getty Images

The scariest feature of American democracy today is not polarization, technology, distrust of the media, or even a formidable slate of foreign adversaries. It is our propensity to elect political leaders who have no idea what they are doing. If we have learned anything from the government shutdown game of chicken that engrossed Washington for more than a month, it is that experience still pays. The meticulous decades spent by Nancy Pelosi mastering the legislative process were no match for the empty threats and foot stomping of Donald Trump in the initial faceoff.

It was clearly not Trump the “brilliant dealmaker” who saved us from another lapse in federal funding. Instead, four seasoned politicians negotiated a bipartisan agreement the old fashioned way with carrots, sticks, and a true appreciation for history and the complexity of policy. Indeed, the talents and attributes that helped Trump win the presidency are not the same ones needed to govern a country successfully. Yet, Republicans are not the only politicians who have fallen into this trap.

{mosads}Democrats cannot effectively rail against Republicans for electing a puerile reality television star to the presidency in 2016 when the blue wave of 2018 resulted in the least politically experienced freshman class in the history of the House of Representatives. One Democratic candidate for governor of the fourth most populous state in the union in 2018 was a Sex and the City star and the 2020 list of candidates for the Democratic nomination includes the spiritual adviser of Oprah Winfrey.

As concerning as these developments may seem, there is a comforting caveat that political amateurs can only wreak havoc on democracy if they fail to conform to political norms. As Julia Azari has noted, the research on political amateurism has long shown that outsiders tend to make poor stewards of the government. They are more ideologically extreme, less willing to compromise and work across party lines, and lack the political bargaining skills and deep knowledge necessary for legislative success.

Yet, congressional studies also show that if amateurs learn to moderate their positions and behavior, enlist the help and advice of experts and insiders, and form alliances with colleagues rather than attack them, they can be quite effective. Prestigious committee positions, which can greatly increase the abilities of members to provide services to their districts, are hard to come by for members who become headaches for party leaders. Most amateurs learn that they are much more likely to achieve the policy goals they campaigned on by working within existing institutions rather than torching them. The cost of not doing so is losing the next election.

There are examples of successes and failures along these lines at every level of elective office in our history. California Governors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger consulted political veterans President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Pete Wilson, respectively, on issues related to strategy and policy. Most of the Reagan “bedwetters,” as Tip O’Neill called the amateurs who were swept into the House of Representatives with the 1980 election, ended up losing their seats in the 1982 midterms. Some of them, including John Hiler of Indiana, were so staunch in their political beliefs that they voted against practical interests of their own districts.

The dynamic at play, of course, is that once political amateurs take the oath of office, they lose their outsider status along with all the everyday person credentials that come with it. A six figure salary, countless perks ranging from parking spots to pensions, and access to a gym, showers, laundry services, and superior health care facilities all located at their place of work in Washington are not relatable to the average American.

Instead, lawmakers must win their reelections based on their records in Washington, ironically putting them at risk of being replaced by an even more ideological and less qualified outsider candidate. The short political memories and unawareness of American voters perpetuate this unhealthy cycle, referred as “leapfrog representation” by congressional scholars.

It is not realistic to suggest that we should stop nominating and voting for inexperienced candidates altogether. Many reasonably consider amateur candidates to be important antidotes to the corrupt political machines of the past. If we want more women, young people, and people of color to represent us in Congress, they will inevitably enter the political stream outside of the lower state level offices where they are underrepresented. 

However, once these candidates are elected, we should have a minimal expectation that they leave the dogma, hyperbole, and disruption behind on the campaign trail. It benefits them because they have a better chance of keeping their jobs. It benefits their constituents because by working within the existing system rather than tossing out the rulebook, they can make real progress on the issues voters care about. As Mitch McConnell declared on the 2016 campaign trail, “Put me down in favor of boring.”

Lauren Wright is a lecturer in public affairs at Princeton University. She is the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today” and has written a forthcoming book about celebrities running for elective office in the United States.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Election Government Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Campaign News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video