People complain about politicians for all sorts of reasons these days, but one of the more persuasive arguments is that today what we have are overwhelmingly “professional politicians” who have never so much as served in a sweetshop before becoming involved in politics full-time. And that’s largely true: most of our current leaders have never actually done a, you know, job, but rather followed the politics degree-intern- research assistant-party hack- elected member route. So yes, in a sense they are professionals.
But we might pause at this point and think what “professional” is supposed to mean. It doesn’t mean “spend your life doing nothing else” as you might talk of a professional supermarket cashier. It usually means passing exams, doing training, having recognition, and, most of all, doing the job to a professional (i.e. adequate) standard. But our political class is not “professional” in that sense: they are the equivalent of doctors who haven’t been trained to use a scalpel.
In turn, that’s because old political skills like “getting elected” don’t have much of a place any more. The single political party that exists in most western states, with its wings and tendencies, its old guard and its young turks, its moderates and its radicals, resembles rather the kind of single party that used to exist in the Soviet era, except that these days factions are theoretically separate parties. Which is why the skills of our modern politicians are Soviet-era ones: bureaucratic politics, finding patrons, dispensing patronage, controlling the discourse, packing committees and so on. The only external actors they court (a development since Soviet times) are the media and wealthy donors.
Which is why, finally, they are amateurs. In France, François Hollande, a professional party man all his life, is presiding over a government expiring from terminal confusion and an inability to get anything done. Merkel, Cameron, Obama, all fundamentally fit the same stereotype, lacking conventional political skills entirely, and attempting to substitute for that an aura of entitlement and natural privilege.
But that’s gone now. Curiously, the most effective performers in politics at the moment are outsiders, people who haven’t spent decades inside the system, moving from party hack to elected office, to chair of an international NGO, to a job at the UN, to a post back in government again. The Le Pens and the Trumps actually know something about the world outside, which is why the insiders are so scared of them. And their appeal to votes (actual, you know, voters) is based squarely on this awareness of life outside the magic circle. I don’t know whether Trump will demolish Clinton later this year, as he seems perfectly capable of doing, but if he does it will be because, in the end, she’s an amateur and he’s a professional.