Political Distortions and the Pitfalls of Technocracy

Andrew Belonsky :: Thursday, June 17th, 2010 1:45 pm

Politicians are a compelling species. They are, on a good day, selfless and humble civil servants, yet are still narcissistic enough to believe that only they, not their opponent, can do the job. These contradictory traits very often clash, leading candidates to boast and brag about qualifications that may not exist. Mark Kirk, Richard Blumenthal and Rand Paul are learning that the hard way. All three have been questioned about inconsistencies in their resumes and career paths. Are they just playing politics, or is this trend a symptom of a larger social epidemic? And what does it mean for underdog Alvin Greene?

Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois is the most recent of the trio to have his resume scrutinized. The Republican has made much hay about his former teaching career, and once boasted during an education debate in the House that he had worked as “a teacher, both nursery and middle school.” He continued, “I did leave the teaching profession, but if we had addressed some of the teacher development issues, which I want to raise with you, I might have stayed.” Kirk neglected to mention that he only worked a cumulative of two years, and one of them was in a nursery school. The other was an exclusive private school in London. Oddly, Kirk’s campaign says that he was referring to the tots when he told his colleagues in the House that he remembered “the kids who were the brightest lights of our country’s future, and I also remember those who bore scrutiny as people who might bring a gun to class.” The candidate has also come under fire for claiming he was awarded the “Intelligence Officer of the Year” for military service. He had not, and later explained that he had “misremembered” the details.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, meanwhile, continues to be dogged by the fact that he lied about his military service. He once said that he served on the ground in Vietnam, when he was actually a reservist here in the States. Now the Democrat says that he had enrolled in the reserves because he wanted to go overseas. “I did not want to avoid service,” he explained. “I did realize reservists could be called up, and that it was something that I wanted to do.” It’s a well known fact that reservists were never meant to be a backup force in Vietnam, and there’s no way Blumenthal believed he would ever be called to duty.

Paul’s situation’s differs a bit from Kirk and Blumenthal’s respective distortions. The Kentucky-based candidate has been working as an eye doctor, something he highlights often on the campaign trail. Paul told me told me himself, “Doctors, myself included, bring a perspective on the health care problems and what we should do with health care reform, and that will be an issue that has great interest to me.” It was revealed this week, however, that Paul’s not certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology, the American Medical Association’s preferred club.

Instead Paul gets his credentials from the National Board of Ophthalmology, which he himself founded in protest to the ABO’s rule that doctors certified after 1992 renew their endorsement every ten years. Older doctors had no such rule, and Paul disapproved: “I thought this was hypocritical and unjust for the older ophthalmologists to exempt themselves from the recertification exam,” Still, opponents are questioning whether his credentials count.

Some analysts suggest that these lies are simply an example of normal human behavior, particularly in a society that puts a premium on merit and expertise. Politicians, however, aren’t regular old humans. They thrive on popular support and, most importantly, votes. Dr. Jay Kwawer from the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology told the New York Times, “Politicians thrive and get elected on the basis of being able to suss out what we want to hear, and telling us what we will vote for whether they believe it or not.” But these candidates’ respective career paths got beyond simple meritocracy. They border on technocracy.

Americans like to think they’re exceptional. Hence the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” We broke from Britain, we achieved independence, and contemporary citizens are expected to break similar barriers. The sky’s the limit! If you have a dream, you can achieve it. But that’s not the case when it comes to politics.

No disrespect to Joe the Plumber, but declarations like “I’m a doctor” or “I came under fire in war” are more impressive than “I spent the past 20 years laying pipe.” Politicians want voters to believe their experience, especially in integral sectors like education, the military and medical, go above and beyond. The candidate wants to look as if he or she understands the ins and outs of the most important institutions, and the people within them. Technical skills, whether rhetorical or hands-on, can become quite seductive on the electoral battlefield. And a lack of experience becomes a stumbling block.

People have been dogging Alvin Greene, the unemployed Democratic Senate candidate in South Carolina who clinched a surprise victory in primaries this month. Rep. James Clyburn suggested that the veteran may be a Republican plant, and he has consistently been described as “bizarre.” No, Greene doesn’t seem like the most poised candidate, and he’s certainly an anomaly, but his lackluster background shouldn’t be used against him. Abraham Lincoln, after all, only had 18 months of schooling, and he proved to be one of the greatest leaders in American history.

Political wisdom doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with expertise. If only lawmakers were wise enough to understand that honest civic duty is far more respectable than fabricated pasts.