The experience canard

As we head into the final stretch leading up to the U.S. presidential election, I wanted to throw a thought out there about experience and judgment. I have long been of the view that natural bias toward one or the other has a lot to do with personality type and plays a big role and how one sees our future leaders. irrespective of whether McCain or Obama wins, I believe this bias has moved in favor of experience over judgment in the U.S. electorate and that has far-reaching consequences.

Anyone doing Presidential research understands that some of our best Presidents were the youngest or most inexperienced. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt to name a few. Let’s concentrate on Lincoln because he was the President at a very crucial time in U.S. History.

Now, if one looks him up in Wikipedia, one reads the following:

A Whig and an admirer of party leader Henry Clay, Lincoln was elected to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. As a freshman House member, he was not a particularly powerful or influential figure. However, he spoke out against the Mexican-American War, which he attributed to President Polk’s desire for “military glory” and challenged the President’s claims regarding the Texas boundary and offered Spot Resolutions, demanding to know on what “spot” on U.S. soil that blood was first spilt.[22]

Lincoln later damaged his political reputation with a speech in which he declared, “God of Heaven has forgotten to defend the weak and innocent, and permitted the strong band of murderers and demons from hell to kill men, women, and children, and lay waste and pillage the land of the just.” Two weeks later, President Polk sent a peace treaty to Congress. While no one in Washington paid any attention to Lincoln, the Democrats orchestrated angry outbursts from across his district, where the war was popular and many had volunteered.

Warned by his law partner, William Herndon, that the damage was mounting and irreparable, Lincoln decided not to run for reelection. His statements were not easily forgotten, and would haunt him during the Civil War……

Lincoln returned to politics in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which expressly repealed the limits on slavery’s extent as determined by the Missouri Compromise (1820). Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the most powerful man in the Senate, proposed popular sovereignty as the solution to the slavery impasse, and incorporated it into the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Douglas argued that in a democracy the people should have the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery in their territory, rather than have such a decision imposed on them by Congress.[25]

In the October 16, 1854, “Peoria Speech“,[26] Lincoln first stood out among the other free soil orators of the day:[27]

[The Act has a] declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.[28]

Drawing on remnants of the old Whig, Free Soil, Liberty and Democratic parties, he was instrumental in forming the new Republican Party. In a stirring campaign, the Republicans carried Illinois in 1854 and elected a senator. Lincoln was the obvious choice, but to keep the new party balanced he allowed the election to go to an ex-Democrat Lyman Trumbull. At the Republican convention in 1856, Lincoln placed second in the contest to become the party’s candidate for Vice-President.

In 1857-58, Douglas broke with President Buchanan, leading to a fight for control of the Democratic Party. Some eastern Republicans even favored the reelection of Douglas in 1858, since he had led the opposition to the Lecompton Constitution, which would have admitted Kansas as a slave state. Accepting the Republican nomination for Senate in 1858, Lincoln delivered his famous speech: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.'(Mark 3:25) I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”[29] The speech created an evocative image of the danger of disunion caused by the slavery debate, and rallied Republicans across the north.

Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858

The 1858 campaign featured the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a famous contest on slavery. Lincoln warned that “The Slave Power” was threatening the values of republicanism, while Douglas emphasized the supremacy of democracy, as set forth in his Freeport Doctrine, which said that local settlers should be free to choose whether to allow slavery or not. Though the Republican legislative candidates won more popular votes, the Democrats won more seats, and the legislature reelected Douglas to the Senate. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s speeches on the issue transformed him into a national political star.


Now, what should be abundantly clear is that Lincoln had less political experience than neither Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. Stephen Douglas, his Illinois rival was the man with the political experience. Yet, in the present U.S. Presidential election, “experience” has continually been an issue of paramount importance for many. What gives?

Back in April, I wrote a post called “Could Abraham Lincoln get elected today?” My basic premise there was that Lincoln’s personality had the classic hallmarks of the ‘Rational’ type — a specific personality type that is currently out of vogue in the United States. Rationals are all about judgment.

But, the last rational President, Dwight Eisenhower, was elected in 1952. Interestingly, if one does any research on Presidents you will see that rationals, which comprise only five to ten percent of the population have been over-represented amongst Presidents (eight to twelve of 43 total) and enormously over-represented amongst the top Presidents – six of our best Presidents (Both John McCain and George W. Bush appear to be ESTP artisans-operators – see this personality type here).

I’ll have more to say about this at a later point, but the long and short of this is that America seems to have had a pro-rational/pro-judgment bias in its early days. This has shifted to a pro-Artisan/Pro-Guardian/Pro-Experience bias as the country has matured (see the MBTI Wikipedia entry for details on these personalities).

My theory here is that Americans valued judgment more when the country was coming of age because that was what was needed. However, as we have grown as a country, guardians maintaining the status quo have become more appealing – George H.W. Bush, who disparaged “that vision thing” is a classic example.

My worry is that this bias away from judgment and toward experience, which also is a bias toward the status quo is exactly NOT what we need right now. These are troubling and dangerous times and I would submit that judgment and vision are the first priorities for a leader.

But, then again, I am biased because I am a rational.

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