We have had many academics in Congress. The House and the Senate have seen any number of former professors rise to power. Newt Gingrich is only one of them. It is a different story, when it comes to the presidency. The only one I can think of was Woodrow Wilson.
With respect to the chief executive, academic credentials are suspect. Most people believe that professional intellectuals do not possess the qualities needed to wield power. They fear that professors are thinkers not doers.
My father certainly believed this. He always argued that those who live in ivory towers are out of touch with reality. They might be smart, but their theories seldom worked as advertised.
This was largely true for Wilson. We forget about the draconian rules he placed on society during World War I. We are also unaware of the mischief he perpetrated in championing the cause of nationalism.
In any event, as a former professor, I can testify that most of my colleagues were remarkably naïve. They were seldom practical when it came to governing their own institution. Much worse were their suggestions for social reform. For the most part, these neglected simple verities about humanity and human societies.
A modest example was their inability to grasp the realities of human hierarchies. Instead of exploring how people fight over higher status, they postulate utopias in which everyone is completely equal.
As a consequence, I am skeptical when academics throw their hats into the presidential ring. This is true for Elizabeth Warren. It is equally true for Peter Buttigieg.
What, you say? Buttigieg is not an academic. He is the mayor of a city and therefore has a significant amount of practical experience. Although he is very smart and unusually articulate, he is not — and never has been — a professor.
This, however, is misleading. While Buttigieg is very personable and has served in the military, his outlook on life is essentially academic. At the tender age of 37, he has had little opportunity to extract himself from the lifestyle into which he was born.
Both of Buttigieg’s parents are professors at Notre Dame. From the beginning, he was encouraged to follow in their footsteps. This he did by winning a slew of academic awards. It is not an accident that he speaks multiple languages.
But, you reply, he is the mayor of an American city. Hasn’t this introduced him to the practicalities of being a chief executive? South Bend may be small, but the issues he successfully managed were the same as any mayor encounters.
Well, not exactly. South Bend is not so much a city as a college town. Buttigieg had to accommodate the desires and attitudes of a professor-dominated community. This was scarcely a replica of America in miniature.
We see the effects of this on the policies Buttigieg promotes. Take the idea of packing the Supreme Court. Going from nine to 15 justices is presumably an easy way of getting around the inconvenience of a conservative court.
This has at least two significant downsides that an academic might miss. The first is that if we tamper with the court for political reasons, this sets the precedent for tampering with it again — perhaps under very different circumstances.
The second reason is that asking 10 sitting judges to unanimously appoint the other five is a recipe for indecision and inaction. Only an academic-minded person (or FDR) might imagine it would be otherwise.
The same sort of impracticality is evident in Buttigieg’s attacks on the Electoral College. As a person from Indiana, he should be aware that this setup protects the interests of his state. It prevents New York and California from running roughshod over smaller states.
Buttigieg misses all this because he is not an independent thinker. He has learned all of the liberal shibboleths and can recite them with verve. There is no doubting his charm. Yet this does not ensure that he has the wisdom or experience to recognize when a program has failed.
No one should be elected president because he or she has an attractive persona. There must be substance behind an appealing façade. Buttigieg does not have it. While he is more presentable than many of his competitors, he is less than he seems.
Isn’t it time that we ask our presidents to be competent at their job? Shouldn’t we peek behind the curtain to figure out the motives and abilities of those who would lead our nation?