One of the really big--and often unremarked--changes in American politics over the last fifty years has been the dominance of educated professionals at all of the top levels of our politics. The presidency, Congress, courts, interest groups, bureaucracy and political parties are now dominated by people with postgraduate degrees in the professions.
Just consider a few examples. Obama has a law degree and is a former college professor. He has just nominated Elena Kagan, former dean of Harvard Law School, to the Supreme Court. George W. Bush has an MBA from Harvard. Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic Party, has a medical degree. Congress is heavily populated with lawyers.
This is the result of a massive rise in education levels over the 20th century, particularly since 1950. In 1910, only 11 percent of the population had high school degrees. As of 2005, according the the Census Bureau, the percentage is 85.2 percent. About 27.7 percent of Americans in 2005 had Bachelor's degrees and 10 percent had graduate degrees, both record highs. Harry Truman never went to college. Now, it is impossible to imagine someone with his educational credentials winning the White House.
Professionals develop important competencies, but they are often narrow skills, closely adapted to their career paths. It's not unusual, given their mastery of difficult concepts and competencies, for professionals to think that they know more about the world than they in fact do. This is a prime liability among college professors, a lesson I have learned through my own errors in life. Professionals and academics are often not the best judges of what they don't know.
Jonathan Alter, author of a new best-selling book on Obama, stated in a radio interview recently that one concern he has about Obama is that he seems to like and rely too much on academics. If true, it's a recipe for mistakes born of arrogance.
So now we have "professional" government. These professionals are an elite built on merit through occupational accomplishment and thus feel secure in their right to rule. But the public doesn't seem to like our regime of government by professionals. Satisfaction with government is at record lows, and for decades a majority of the public has harbored distrust that the government can be relied upon to "do the right thing" most of the time.
Perhaps the distrust and professionalization of government are related. Professionals, after all, self-confidently pursue their goals and often think they know better than less-educated fellow citizens. Those citizens, getting a whiff of that arrogance, return the favor with distrust.
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Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .