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Selecting A President:
The Challenge Of Deferring To Excellence In A Democracy

It is said that Will Rogers, the famous American humorist, used to include in his act a comment that when a President was elected, we instantly knew one thing for certain about him: An awful lot of people didn’t want him to be President. This is forever so, and maybe more so this year. Will Rogers was referring to the people who voted against the winner, and this year there seems to be an exceptionally large number of people who aren’t thrilled even with the people they voted for or intend to vote for.

More than this, the nature of disapproval of the other candidate seems more intense than usual. People who can’t tolerate Trump see him as misogynist, racist, incompetent, and indeed insane, while those who oppose Biden see him as a fumbling old man, who is a puppet of the left and has used his office to gain financial favor for his family.

Now, this is not completely unheard of in our history. Allegations of incompetence, sexual misdeeds, etc., go back a long way. But it is hard to imagine these two, or even their respective supporters, getting together over a beer to hash out what is good for the country, or even what is a politically possible compromise, in the way political opposites such as Ronald Reagan and then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill were able to do back in the 1980s.

This piece is being written before the election, but being a brilliant prognosticator, I will predict, in the spirit of Will Rogers, that many people will be not just unhappy, but despondent over the results.

Certainly one should never assume things will work out for the best, but the ability to be serene in times of stress is a virtue. One is reminded of when Sir John Sinclair, founder of the Board of Agriculture, promoter of the Statistical Account of Scotland, and author of innumerable pamphlets on a multitude of subjects, brought Adam Smith, the British author of The Wealth of Nations and an exceptional political economist, the news of the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777. The event marked a turning point in the U.S. War for Independence, as the American victory gave France the confidence to side with America. Sinclair exclaimed that the nation was ruined. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” was Smith’s serene reply.

Or put another way, each problem provides the opportunity to think things through and find new ways to proceed and make improvements. One of the most important issues to reflect upon is what type of people we want to be elected and whether the system encourages people of excellence to rise to the top.

If you think about the Founding Fathers, it is striking enough that people of such brilliance existed in the small backwater that was America at the time. Yet even more extraordinary is a culture and system that elevated such men and brought them all together in one place at one time, in such authority that they were able to draft and endorse the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Even with the more recent times, a habit of deference to excellence still reigned. Political commentator George F. Will recently told a story about an important Republican Senator, Robert Taft (1889-1953):

A President’s son, he was “Mr. Republican” during his 14 years representing Ohio in the Senate… Then as now, Ohio had many blue-collar industrial workers, and Taft’s critics said he could not represent them.

So, in 1947 a reporter asked Taft’s wife, “Do you think of your husband as a common man?” Aghast, she replied: “Oh, no, no! The senator is very uncommon. He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at the Harvard Law School. We wouldn’t permit Ohio to be represented in the Senate by just a common man.”

In 1950, Taft was easily reelected.

Yet today it is said the most accurate predictor of who will win an election is an answer to the question: “Which of the candidates would you most like to have a beer with?”

Even the thrust to make voting easier – registration when one gets a driver’s license and easy early and absentee balloting – one senses this is not a function of conviction that it will make governance better but some kind of blind faith that the more democracy the better. This is an attitude the Founders did not have and, in fact, they devised a system of government to prevent the short-term passions of people from moving the levers of government.

The late Senator Sam Ervin, who famously chaired the Watergate committee, once said, “I’m not going to shed any real or political or crocodile tears if people don’t care enough to vote. I don’t believe in making it easy for apathetic, lazy people. I’d be extremely happy if nobody in the United States voted except for the people who thought about the issues and made up their own minds and wanted to vote. No one else who votes is going to contribute anything but statistics, and I don’t care that much for statistics.”

In order for us to have better governance, we must have better people in government, which means we need systems and a culture that defer to excellence. This is not a common mode of thought today, but perhaps the deep dissatisfaction with both candidates will lead to a reconsideration of the way we have been proceeding. Perhaps we should remember that folk definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

*****

This piece was adapted from Jim Prevor’s Fruits of Thought column of PRODUCE BUSINESS prior to the 2016 election. It now appears quadrennially in this space.

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