Trump's Rise Highlights the Decline of the 'Career Politician'

The preferred politician is now someone who has a separate expertise, say commercial or legal, and joins politics to intervene in an existing problem.

File photo of President-elect Donald Trump speaking to the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

File photo of President-elect Donald Trump speaking to the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The dominant message from the US presidential election is that Americans mistrust career politicians. The term ‘career politician’ means different things for the right and left. The right, which believes in minimal governmental interference, has realised that a politician who had spent most of his life in government was not a suitable apostle for its philosophy. This conceptual incongruity aside, Republican voters concluded their elected representatives did not share the urgency of issues affecting them because the privileges of political office insulated them from the challenges of everyday Americans. For example, career politicians make regulations and tax laws that affect small businesses and job growth, while never managing such responsibilities in their personal capacity. The nomination of a career politician as the Republican candidate for president felt counter-intuitive to Republican voters.

For these voters, the appeal of Donald Trump partly lies in his business experience, which, to them, implies experience in negotiating complex tax laws, creating jobs, making smart trade deals and empathising with the disadvantages of excessive regulation. Moreover, Republican voters believed the candidacy of a ‘business guru’ would be an attractive contrast against the biggest career politician of their generation – Hillary Clinton. Clinton, who Republican voters believe has name recognition exceeding her actual accomplishments, is the personification of the unconcerned Washington elite. And Trump, the successful Washington outsider, would be the strongest candidate to take her down. As the results reveal, this calculation has culminated in a Trump victory.

For the progressives or the left, the term career politician does not simply mean a person who has spent most of her career in Washington. The left’s beloved champion, Bernie Sanders, has completed decades in political offices from mayor to senator. For the left, a career politician is a candidate ready to sacrifice principles to appease the donor, lobbyist and industrial class. Compromises with special interest groups ensure ample funds for subsequent elections. Clinton, who was not popular among the progressive-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, is seen to be too comfortable with the banking, fossil fuel and defence industries. According to progressive-liberal Democrats, the banking industry is recklessly speculating with the financial security of most Americans. The fossil fuel industry needs to be reined in to combat climate change. The defence industry’s lobbying has led the US to a state of perpetual war – starting with Iraq and now Libya, Yemen and Syria. In her career as senator and secretary of state, Clinton has compromised on all three issues important to progressives – financial regulation, climate change and military intervention. These compromises depressed the turnout for her own party during the elections.

Clinton’s victory over Sanders was not a sign of ebbing distaste for the career politician. In the general election campaign, Hillary stayed deceptively viable with tactical advantages, such as massive name recognition, lopsided funding, savvy ground operations and powerful surrogates like the Obamas. Trump’s character problem was one of Clinton’s biggest boons. She eventually lost the electoral college to Trump. But in the years to come, the strategic weakness of career politicians in the US will soon sink any tactical advantages that barely protected Clinton from a rout in the popular vote.

It is easy to miss emerging trends in American politics due to the interest in immediate outcomes and candidates as colourful and as famous as Trump and Clinton. Trends are slow and subtle, but they are enduring and inevitable. In the days of Lincoln and Roosevelt, politics was seen as a vocation. Politicians made personal and political sacrifices to battle for principles dear to them. Former President Lyndon Johnson, by taking on segregation and dooming his party’s chances in the US’s southern belt, was perhaps the last of the presidents from this old school.

The presidency of Richard Nixon presaged the emergence of the career politician. The trend continued through Reagan, the Bushes and Bill Clinton. Their political lives should be classified as careers, not vocation, as they made compromises with special interest groups at the cost of principles. Every president and politician has had to compromise with entrenched social and economic forces, but the post-Nixon presidents have turned compromise from a necessary evil to a core strategy to perpetuate power. The compromises by Bush and Clinton earned both extra dividends in the form of political dynasties, a trend thought to be dead in American presidential politics after World War II. The past five decades in the US has seen politics stripped of its virtue advantage, turning a vocation into a career or profession.

The trend emerging in American politics is not simply the decline of the career politician. Once again, there is a reformulation of politics. Politics-as-a-vocation, which gave way to politics-as-career, is now turning into politics-as-intervention. Underlying the politics-as-intervention trend are two assumptions. The first is that politics, by itself, is not a skilled activity. The second assumption is politics is a necessary evil. Therefore, the preferred politician is someone who has a separate expertise, say commercial or legal, and joins politics to intervene in an existing problem. The politician is expected to use that expertise to improve the existing situation, within a term or two, and return to her private citizenship after the crisis is past.

Politicians, in American states, are being elected on this understanding of politics-as-intervention. The biggest example of this trend is former three-term mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. Rick Snyder, the current governor of Michigan, was the chairman of a computer hardware company. Rick Scott, the current governor of Florida, was the CEO of a healthcare company. The appeal of these businessmen-politicians at the state level fuelled the Trump candidacy at the national level. This is the populism that has now won the Republicans a stunning victory in the presidential election. The Democratic Party could have challenged it with their own populism – virtuous government service, personified by Sanders. But they did not stand a chance with the establishment candidate, Clinton.

The appeal of the businessman-politician is rising in the US. There are staggering downsides to these new expectations from the politician, such as cronyism and oligarchy. But those conflicts of interest are separate investigations. The trend of politics-as-intervention is here to be part of American democracy for the next few decades. The first step in accepting this trend is to interpret Trump’s victory as something he got despite his behaviour and not because of it.

Sampad Patnaik is an MPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Cambridge

Join The Discussion