Why academics aren’t politicians

The New York Times has done a series of mini-interviews with “leaders in fields other than politics”, asking them what they would do if they were President.  Their answers underline that many very clever people would make very bad politicians.  Danny Meyer, for example, is an entrepreneur who has created some of New York’s best restaurants.  But his presidential proposal sounds like something cooked up by undergraduates:

If I were president, I’d appoint a blue-ribbon committee of 14 accomplished citizens — one each representing these nonpolitical walks of American life: arts, science, sports, big business, entrepreneurs, tech, medicine, law, education, environment, defense, religion, farming and philanthropy — and charge them with imagining innovative industries that put Americans to work and add value to our world. I’d prioritize among the committee’s ideas, then advocate for a tax code rewarding sustainable job-rich industries, especially those that liberate us from imported oil.

Yeah man, it’s just like if only we didn’t listen to all the squares in suits, we’d totally realize that America’s woes can be resolved by a better dialogue between farmers, defense analysts and David Beckham.  Without that, we’ll never be able to produce a new generation of robots able to kill people with soccer balls entirely powered by excess corn starch and pig excrement.  Or something like that.

Or perhaps not.  But what am I saying?  As the NYT underlined in a very enjoyable recent profile, Mr. Meyer is devoted to perfecting the beef burger, and that’s more than good enough for me.  I’d expected a slightly surer political touch from James Q. Wilson, one of the academic godfathers of neoconservatism (if you’re into social policy, you’ll know he’s the brain behind the “broken windows” theory of policing) and an alumnus of any number of White House advisory groups.  What does he suggest?

With my staff, I would decide what my administration was for. Once I had clarified that, I would write several speeches on how to cope with a stagnant economy, how to deal with countries (such as Iran and Syria) that harass their own populations, and how the United States is committed to the survival of Israel. These speeches would not attack the other party or previous presidents but would describe the views I supported. On the economy: do I favor tax cuts or increases, expenditure reductions or increases? On terrorist regimes: what sanctions will I support? On Israel: under what circumstances would an attack on Israel be regarded as an attack on the United States? People would disagree with some of what I said, but they would know where I stand. After delivering the speeches, I would submit to Congress my specific proposals, on which I would ask them to vote.

Seriously?  “Write several speeches”?  Not just one or two?  Is that it?

I guess that Wilson is trying to imply that the current U.S. President has not always been 100% clear about his beliefs and not been tough enough with Congress.  Fair enough.  But can Professor Wilson really think that the essence of wielding power is so simple?  I sincerely doubt it.  Nonetheless, the NYT‘s exercise is a good reminder that great political thinkers aren’t necessarily great guides to how to do politics.

(PS: for those with any time left for summer reading, I thoroughly recommend going out and getting a copy of Jan-Werner Müller’s outstanding new book Contesting Democracy.  It’s a history of European political thought in the twentieth century, and it deals with hard political questions about what leaders like Mussolini actually thought they were doing.  It starts out with a fine dissection of Max Weber’s lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, which is still the best explanation of what it takes to be a serious politician.)