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The (Questionable) Value of Experience

I thought that since the election was over, we might begin to get off of this recent ongoing debate train about how much experience really matters, and when, and with what, and blah-dee-blah. No such luck. Caroline Kennedy has gone and muddied my happy spirit and is publically jostling her way into getting the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, alighting the experience debate anew. And so, instead of stewing about it for another month, wanting it to go away like a bad cold or food poisoning, I'm going to write a diary on TalkLeft to vent my frustrations about the whole mess.

For those who don't know, I'm a 20 year old college student, so this should tell you in advance where this diary is headed. I don't like those who value experience above all other factors, because I, like a lot of other college kids, think that one's ideas and drive matter a lot more than their experience. Or perhaps rather, we think that those things matter a lot more than seniority, which has often been a cute substitute to deny us jobs and internships as we attempt to branch off into the "real world."

I'm not going to head down that route exactly, though, rather the thesis of this diary is to say that experience in politics matters close to nil in regards to our politicians. My theory is that to be an effective politician you only need to be around long enough to gain connections. Politics, as well as certain other people-based professions, has no necessary use for experience IN politics. They do require experience of a different kind, or perhaps just natural-born talent--but in my mind, one doesn't have to "hang around long enough" in order to be eligible for certain positions. The only qualifications on age are Constitutional--to be President you have to be 35, and for a Senator, 30; Representatives can't be younger than 25. Yet for some strange reason, we have this idea as a society that you have to be white-headed in order to run for such a position. More to the point, we have placed too much of a value on experience for too long a time--at the deprivation of innovation and raw ideas.

Experience in politics is a non-starter for me when looking at someone being qualified for office. I can think of example after example of people who have been around for forever who I dislike and like, and newbies who I dislike and like. Experience doesn't seem to be a factor in there. I don't dislike Bush because he was relatively inexperienced--I dislike him because I vehemently disagree with his ideas and approach to matters. In the same respect, most of what I like about Obama has zero to do with his prior political record. I admire that he can write books. I think it's perhaps very useful for our President to be a thinker, an academic, and an articulate man to boot. I think it's wonderful that he was talented enough to be head of the Harvard Law Review. Yet as a society, when we looked at Obama, the main criticism was: "He's only been a U.S. Senator for 3-4 years." We expected our President to be in a public office for a certain amount of time. This is something that confounds me a little bit.

Shouldn't our Presidency be based off of who has the best ideas to run our government? Shouldn't we take more seriously people outside of politics, like a T. Boone Pickens or a Caroline Kennedy, for example? Not because they merely are out of politics, but because they have good ideas. Why do we put this arbitrary hurdle up for people searching for high office that they had to have served in a lower office in the same political framework beforehand? It's a very office management style of governing, and it's not one that I think yields very good results.

The most important tool a legislator has is his or her vote. An executive has to be able to make appearances, to sign or veto a bill, and to be America's face to the world. Prior political experience may be important in each of these tasks, but it is nowhere near as important as the person's beliefs on issues, their public speaking abilities, and their way of managing their office. Political experience is really much less important than we make it out to be.

And who exactly defines the line at what is too little or too much experience? The same people who lashed out at Obama for being too inexperienced embraced Palin because she had "executive experience." Those who embraced Obama are now not embracing Kennedy, because she hasn't been elected to an office before. But at some point, there must be 'enough', right?

No. A person's experience of ANY kind that represents their ideas or their way of managing themselves is what should be important. Not a set length, and certainly not with the political qualifier. We envision a structure with a 'set way' to do things, and this structure chokes us of our creativity and potential. Politics is a battle of ideas, and ideas should matter most. Experience should come in a close twelfth to a myriad of other factors, such as ability to speak coherently, education, prior travel, and more. And once experience is considered, it should be all kinds of experience, not just the political kind.

I think Caroline Kennedy is perfectly qualified for the NY Sen. seat, and if Gov. Paterson thinks that her ideas represent the people of New York better than anyone else, and if he thinks that she can be more effective in taking care of New Yorkers, then he should appoint her, regardless of her lack of public experience. Her ideas on education, crime, and our wars are very much in line with the mainstream New York Democrat. Her position within the Kennedy clan has allowed her to gain a great deal of apolitical experience in dealing with people and getting things done, especially fundraising.

I know this diary has been a bit of a ramble, and in places it is poorly organized. I wrote this in a bit of an illness-induced rant, and I apologize for any typographical miscues I may have looked over. The issue of experience has always bothered me, because I have never valued it highly. It is not something required in all professions, and in some cases, it can be a detriment. To preserve "our way of doing things", people who have the power to do so have always rewarded seniority over brightness and upstartedness on a large scale. There are notable exceptions, but the exception unfortunately proves the rule. We probably need a few more young people in politics, but more over, we need to move to a system where we elect people (or appoint them) based off of their ideas--not how long they've been a member of this or this board or whatever. An ideologically-based system as opposed to a perceived merit-based one. It would be a step up in my view. Perhaps I'm just naive, but I really do think this would give us more effective leadership.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Experience (none / 0) (#1)
    by kayla on Mon Dec 22, 2008 at 09:24:27 AM EST
    To me, experience doesn't mean being old or hanging around for a certain amount of time - it's about experiencing something.  It's about taking those ideas that are in your head and accomplishing something with it.  Experience is not being afraid to fail and learning from the failure.  If it takes you 3 years to do it or 30 years it's fine by me.  Just as long as you gain the right experience.

    I was definitely one of those people who felt that Obama wasn't experienced enough, but it had little to do with how long he was in the Senate.  I thought Obama had a ton of political experience and talent, but not much experience implementing innovative ideas.

    I don't know a whole bunch about Caroline Kennedy, so I can't really say how I feel about her as Senator.  I can say that the reasons her opponents are giving for why she's unqualified are not convincing at all.


    I think how one views experience depends (none / 0) (#2)
    by Anne on Tue Dec 23, 2008 at 10:23:11 AM EST
    in some measure on which end of the age spectrum one is on; now that I am on the other side of 50, I can look at the experience issue not just from the perspective of my current age, and what I have learned, experienced and witnessed, but can look back to my early 20's, and also have the benefit of being able to talk these things over with my early-20's daughters.

    There is no question that the ideas and the philosophy and agenda have to be there above all else - without those, it doesn't matter to me what someone's experience is.  But ideas alone aren't enough; just look at us, at this blog, at well-written comments all over the blogosphere - the ideas are there, but how many of us would know the first thing about how to make them a reality on the grand scale that is a national office?  How many of us have the skills - skills that come with experience - that will result in making real, positive changes in the lives of millions of people?  

    Are there natural leaders?  People who, with no experience, are able to take their ideas and make them happen?  Sure, but how many of them are interested in politics, and how many appreciate that politics is not like business, it's not like running a foundation - it's a thing unto itself that has frustrated and blindsided and boggled and stonewalled a lot of highly intelligent, talented individuals over the years - and being able to do something with success in a non-political arena, or even in a smaller-scale political arena, is not the same as doing it on a national stage, as a member of Congress or as president or vice-president.

    Someone who is not yet out of the academic world of college or graduate school, who has not yet forged a path through the thicket of "the real world," has a different concept of what experience means, and how important or unimportant it is.  That is not meant to be an insult - just something the truth of which comes to us once we move out of the academic world!  All the things that happen to us over the years - jobs, marriage, children, death - these all color our views, and we appreciate that life is not always easy or fun or going the way we want it to.  Each of us approaches the challenges life brings us in different ways - we rise - or not - to the occasion, we succeed or not, and sometimes the adversity teaches us more than the success.

    I find it interesting that until now, Caroline Kennedy has shown no interest in politics, no interest in carrying on the family business.  Is her interest her own, or is it driven by her Uncle Ted's desire for her to continue the Kennedy legacy?  How much of this is Caroline, and how much is the last wishes of a dying man?  Is it fair that the people of New York might find themselves being represented by someone when they have no clear idea what she stands for and what her opinions are?  I would rather Paterson appoint a more known quantity now, and if Kennedy truly wants to represent the State of New York, let her spend the next two years introducing herself to its residents, and showing them who she is.  Hillary Clinton started doing that a full year before she ran the first time - and it's a perfectly reasonable and sensible approach.

    I believe strongly that the only way we will ever be able to get good people into legislatures and state houses and Congress and the White House is to have 100% publicly-financed elections.  It's the only way those long on ideas and short on experience will ever be able to make their case to the public without being steamrolled by a privately-financed juggernaut who may not be the best candidate.

    Having two daughters in their early-to mid-twenties, I know things have changed - the world has changed - since I was their age, but feelings and hopes and dreams have remained pretty universal; I don't dismiss their ideas as being the product of naivete, because I remember how insulting it was to have my own rejected for the same reason.

    That being said, experience is a factor whether we like it or not; what we don't know about Obama or Kennedy is whether that will matter to our benefit, or our detriment.

    I'm hoping for the former, while being aware that it could easily be the latter.