Claims that Hillary Clinton was better qualified than Trump for the role of Commander-in-Chief are misguided. There is a fundamental difference between an elected office and regular employment, argues Henry Hill.
One of the most common refrains trumpeted by Hillary Clinton’s bewildered supporters in the aftermath of her defeat last week is astonishment that voters could reject a candidate so ‘broadly and deeply qualified’ for the role. Very often this seems to be not just an argument about the merits of Donald Trump’s suitability for the role of Commander-in-Chief, which is a perfectly understandable and a very widely-held concern, but rather a suggestion that Clinton is so objectively right for the post that the motivations of those voting against her must be suspect.
I don’t intend to dispute whether the Democrat nominee was as well-qualified as her supporters insist – although it’s worth pointing out that if you think Barack Obama was a great President there’s a ceiling on how important you can argue prior experience actually is. Instead, I take issue with the idea we can discuss ‘qualification’ for political office as if it were a normal job. There is a fundamental difference between an elected office and regular employment. When hiring for a position in the normal way, the question at issue is finding the best individual to achieve an already-agreed goal. In an election, at least in a presidential system, voters must choose the individual and the goal at the same time. Ignoring this element – and ignoring the political dimension of an election seems to be easier than you’d think – leads to the fallacies of technocrats and the sort of ‘pragmatist’ who wants to ‘take politics out of it’.
Most businesses have a clear, quantifiable goal: maximising shareholder returns. This makes it possible, if not always easy, to take an objective view about what course to take and what roles to give people. The debate inside a business is about how, not what. This doesn’t exist in Government. An approximation of it might be possible in a highly consensual society with a narrow Overton Window, but the modern United States is anything but. As any number of post-election think pieces will tell you, America is more divided than ever.
Indeed the Republic has split into two broad tribes who, thanks in part to accelerated social clustering known as ‘The Big Sort’, have almost no experience of each other. They certainly have very different understandings of what the Government should do, and neither trusts the levels of power in the hands of the opposing tribe. This piece by one of the above-mentioned distraught Clintonians gives you a feel for the apocalyptic flavour each tribe’s partisans attach to the struggle for national institutions:
“It’s not just about who gets to be president. It’s about who gets to vote for the president, who gets to stay in America and make their families here and how those families get to be configured. It’s about who controls the culture, who makes the art, who makes the policies, whom those policies benefit and whom they harm.”
As a small-government sort, the idea that the Government should have any bearing on ‘who makes the art’ or ‘controls the culture’ makes me queasy, but that’s how many people on both sides of the divide seem to view politics. And if the stakes are that high the qualifications of the individuals at the tips of each spear become, paradoxically, even less important. That seems counter-intuitive: surely, the bigger and more important the job – and the Presidency described by Traister sounds about as important as can be – the more you want the best-qualified person in the role?
But think about it a little longer and the countervailing logic becomes clear: if an election is about preventing the powers of Government falling into the hands of the enemy tribe, such stakes can very easily eclipse the virtues and vices of the individual candidates. Trump is an awful person in so many ways, but if you’re opposed to Clinton’s agenda and view the race in anything like the way Traister does, your willingness to cede the Presidency on that basis is going to be very limited. The same is true of the Blue Tribe’s partisans too (and perhaps this defeat will lead to a renewed appreciation of limited government on their part). As your intolerance of, or alienation from, the other side increases, so too does your tolerance of flaws in your own team.
In 2016 the qualification debate is complicated by the unique shortcomings of the President-elect. But we shouldn’t allow a broader, incorrect argument to establish itself under the cover of anti-Trumpism. It is perfectly rational in ordinary circumstances – and perhaps even more so during existential struggles – to vote against a better-qualified candidate for office whose programme you oppose. Qualifications are a how issue, and politics is first and foremost about what.