Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Experience Fetish

This bit from a profile of Obama's candidacy is fairly typical:

"The fact that Mr Obama was not in the Senate during the debates about the Iraq war probably is an advantage: remember John Kerry’s fatal dithering on the subject. But the fact that he did not take part in a controversial vote cannot make up for his complete lack of experience in foreign policy. Will American voters really vote for a neophyte at a time when they are entangled in wars in the Middle East and al-Qaeda is doubtless planning another attack?"

Now, I've complained about this before. But let me say that the popular obsession with "experience" is not only stupid -- it's actively pernicious, projecting political whimsy onto a concept with no real meaning.

Yes, Obama will have a shorter Senate tenure than Clinton, Edwards, or McCain. So what? Although Senators have some access to privileged information, and occasionally participate in substantive policymaking, for the most part their foreign policy "experience" is the same as every informed person's: they examine the issues in play, discuss them, and declare their judgments.

I do that
. And so did Obama -- in the 2003 rush to war, this "neophyte" managed to nail the correct position where the deeply "experienced" Washington establishment failed. Would you rather support Democrats who threw their weight behind the war? Who, either from cynicism or active stupidity, decided that supporting an irrational push to conflict was smart foreign policy? Would you rather support McCain, a man clinging to fantasies of a meaningless troop surge?

When such a dumb concept finds its way into the American zeitgeist, we can usually blame the media. It's tempting to do the same here -- certainly the media has propagated the "Obama lacks experience" line, mentioning it as a weakness because... well, the man doesn't have enough serious weaknesses to complete an article.

But the obsession with experience isn't just the media's fault: it's a far deeper part of our mental terrain. We love "experience" because it's the one asset that accumulates automatically. You might not be a success, but if you put in your time, you'll damn sure get your fill. And the young guys simply must respect you: you've been around, seen it all, and can tell some great stories. You call it experience; I say it's Social Security for the ego.

It's human nature. And it holds enormous potential to destroy. We may yet see the most talented political orator and thinker to win national prominence in decades (ever?) fail thanks to this phony flaw.

Let's hope for better.


Allan Niemerg said...

While I agree that experience is not everything, it is hardly a "dumb concept." It is a real and valid consideration. Experience is probably the single best way to measure talent. Experience means that one has been tested, again and again, and found to be worthy. Few other criteria we can measure people by come close. That said, I don’t know if political experience makes one more worthy. Especially for senators, who become creatures of the Beltway and somewhat detached from the rest of America. Perhaps that is why governors tend to be favored. Regardless, I agree that the experience question is being pushed quite hard by the media. You may be right, they don’t have enough weaknesses to complete an article on him.

Megan said...

Hey! So, this is a great point. definitely. and well put. I'm a junior at Duke, I'm currently trying to re-invigorate the Duke Progressive Alliance...Ben Abram actually sent me to check out your blog. He thinks we should get together and talk politics soon, and I do too. I really hearing more pragmatic perspectives than my own... anyway, i'll get in touch with you.