Still Wanted: Better Politicians

In 1955, the mayor of Philadelphia complained that elected office didn't attract America's best minds. His diagnosis and solutions still seem relevant today.


Judged by the standards of baseball, how many politicians have we in the country who could play left field for the Giants? How many have we who could even get into single-A? I think we have too much mediocrity in the business of running the government of the country, and it troubles me that this should be so at a time of such complexity and crisis.

Why should this be so in politics when it is not so in business and other professions? Why are there 2.4 qualified candidates for medical school for every one accepted, when thousands of elective public offices and party posts go by default to mediocre contestants? Why are there 10 candidates for admission to Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration for every vacancy? Why do so many students who major in government gravitate to teaching and to the civil service instead of politics? It is because the qualifications for entry into politics are neither many nor exacting, and there is no need to pass an examination to prove one's competence?

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Sounds about right, correct? But I didn't write those words today, in 2015. They were written Joseph S. Clark Jr., and they were published in The Atlantic in August 1955, under the headline, "Wanted: Better Politicians." (I've changed just three things above, all italicized: I excised the now defunct 3-I League and adjusted the admission rates for medical school and Harvard Business School— up and down, respectively. San Francisco's recent baseball prowess saved me the trouble of changing the first sentence.) Yet they remain timely 60 years later.

I'm fond of this article because it helps me keep things in perspective. It's very easy to get jaded about politics today. Maybe that's especially acute for a political journalist living in Washington, but poll after poll shows a dyspeptic public that hates Congress, disdains politics, and has little faith in government to fix anything. Even the most sober analysts assure us that it's even worse than it looks.

Clark's article is a good reminder that even if this a low ebb, the issues the nation faces today are not new. If there really was a Golden Age of American government—and most Golden Ages are chimerical—it wasn't in living memory. Clark's piece is also a reassuring reminder that while the solutions to America's politician crisis may not be easy, there are good ideas that exist, and have for some time.

Joseph Clark was no peanut-gallery pundit. While he spoke about the need for Americans to run for office, he walked the walk, too: When the article was published, he was mayor of Philadelphia, and two years later he ran for U.S. Senate, serving two terms as an outspoken liberal Democrat. In some respects, his diagnosis and solutions are clearly those of a big-government progressive of post-war era: Clark writes of the 1880s, "Men still quoted with approval Jefferson's dictum that government is best when governing least," an idea that gained new currency in the 1980s. Much of it, however, still sounds surprisingly fresh.

Clark argues that a central problem is a bad pipeline for good politicians. To get into office in 1955, he wrote, a man (and of course the piece almost entirely concerns men) has to either work up through drudge work, be a "maverick" and run from outside the establishment, or be begged to run by a party, like Eisenhower. "Almost every year the political leaders have to look around for some citizen willing to be drafted who has not come up through the normal political channels," Clark writes. "They have to take what they can get, and too often it is pretty bad." The nation needs more professionals—from the business, medicine, and so on—to run for office.

How true is this still today? Certainly, the outsider path is still open, and as the cost of running for office goes up, both parties are eager to sign up candidates who can fund their campaigns in whole or part. For every successful example—Mitt Romney, for example—there's a Carly Fiorina or a Sean Eldridge. Overall, however, it seems as if non-career-politicians have better luck today, as this excellent chart shows.

Clark also complains that politicians are underpaid relative to their opportunities in the private sector—an argument still made forcefully today—and he calls for more women to run for office: "Women should be encouraged to participate more actively, especially where their husbands are also interested. By and large, women tend to raise the level of integrity and imagination in politics." While the first sentence is enough to make one cringe in 2015, the second sentence has been borne out surprisingly well by recent social-science research. My colleague Derek Thompson reported this month on how having women in working groups improves results, and by some standards women make more effective legislators than men.

These factors aside, a great deal of the problem with the political class must certainly be about impressions, Clark writes. While the public is familiar with idealized images of doctor or engineers, the average American sees the politician "as a heel on a soapbox making a fool of himself ... Until we get better politicians the profession will continue to get a bad press; and as long as it gets a bad press it will be hard to persuade people of competence to make it a career."

Ah, yes: optics. Still the bane of politics today. As long as politics looks like a dirty business, and especially as long as it looks like one where nothing gets done, where principles are compromised, and where most of one's time is spent on humiliating fundraising tasks, it will be hard to convince people to opt for low pay and public derision.

That's the sort of thing that should worry citizens of all persuasions. Naturally a big-government liberal like Clark feels it's essential for people to have faith in government's ability to work, but even a libertarian wants government to work well, even if is overseeing a narrower array of tasks.

"Government by amateurs, semi-pros, and minor-leaguers will not meet the challenge of our times," Clark wrote 60 years ago. "We must realize that it takes great competence to run a country which, in spite of itself, has succeeded to world leadership in a time of deadly peril." His words are no less true today.