“The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)

“The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)



In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

—–Dr. Lawrence J. Peter



The Peter Principle first appeared in 1969 and was widely known through the 1970s. In case there are any sad souls out there who do not know the wisdom of this book and its sequels, let me sum up: For every job in the world, there is someone, somewhere, who cannot do it. Given enough time and enough promotions, that person will get that job. At that point, he (or she) will not get promoted again in the normal course of things. At the same time, he or she will most likely not be fired, since that would mean that the last promotion was a mistake and would be an admission of incompetence by the person or persons responsible. Thus, the incompetent person is stuck at his or her level of incompetence, muddling along, frustrating coworkers and underlings and superiors alike. Over time, the hierarchy will become overwhelmed by incompetent employees and leaders alike, and collapse, unless it finds some way to rid itself of this deadwood.

Dr. Peter himself applied this principle to politics. We can say that “candidate” is the entry level position for the political hierarchy. The classic model is someone who runs for local office, say local school board or county commission. If the candidate is competent at meeting and ingratiating himself or herself with people, raising money and speaking publicly, the candidate will get promoted to office-holder. However, the skills required to be a successful candidate are not the same as those required to be a successful leader. The candidate may prove to be a political failure, unable to work with the system to accomplish his or her goals or even to maintain the smooth functioning of the group. If, however, the local politician proves capable, he or she may catch the eye of someone in the state party looking for a candidate for some higher office. The successful county commissioner or city councilmember is invited to run for state office. If he or she succeeds as a candidate for state office, then the new state legislator has the chance to impress peers and party leaders and might be recruited to run for national office. But if at any point the candidate turns out to be a dud in office, he or she will (the story goes) not be asked to run for anything else. However, given the power of the incumbency and the tendency of voters to kvetch about their leaders while only meaning the ones they themselves didn’t vote for, the mediocre state legislator or Congressman will continue to stay at his or her level of incompetence indefinitely, winning reelection almost automatically unless the whole political structure is struck by some catastrophe (and often even then).

There are, of course, many exceptions to this standard story line. Most come down to the simple fact that the necessary qualifications for the job of “candidate” are not the same as the skills needed for the job of “office-holder.” For example, Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz was successful as a student, specializing in courses and activities that relate to winning arguments. He did not focus so much on learning what was true as he did on convincing others to go along with him. He was never interested in forming consensus or compromising or determining whether in fact he might be mistaken about something, and did not study those skills. He was, to all accounts, a consummate ideological activist and lawyer. With an impressive résumé and success in Texas state politics, he was able to attain promotion to the job of candidate for U.S. Senate. He was and is a very competent campaigner, able to persuade voters and donors, and thus attained promotion to the job of actual Senate office-holder. As a U.S. senator, however, he has proven to be stunningly incompetent. The word “politics” has it roots in the Greek word “polis,” meaning city-state or community; to be a politician is to be a participant in the activities and leadership of your society.   A good politician is someone who works with others to find the best course for the society and to implement those policies. The necessary skills are, above all, the ability to work with others, to form coalitions of allies who will support one’s career and one’s policies, and to work out deals when necessary with others to persuade them to work with you. Ted Cruz is, as his opponent Donald Trump has said, hated. He is not hated by liberals only, or Democrats only. His own Republican party members hate him. People as a class hate him. The world seems divided between those who hate Ted Cruz and those who haven’t met him yet. This would generally be considered to be abject failure for a politician. However, it is not necessarily a failing for a candidate. Candidates only have to promote themselves and sell themselves; they don’t have to actually do anything. A good candidate can be successful the same way that headache medicine that you “apply directly to your forehead” was successful, even though there was no evidence that it actually worked; good marketing can make up for a lack of effectiveness. Now, he is proving that he is a competent candidate for President. Many of those who have worked with him believe he is incompetent, and would be a danger to his political party, his ideological movement and even to the nation, were he elected; but the hiring committee that is the Iowa Republican caucus has determined that he has the qualities required for the job of candidate.

Donald Trump may or may not be an incompetent political leader; he has no track record so we don’t know. He has shown himself to be a highly competent promoter, whether he is selling real estate or himself. His approach to politics has been to emphasize those requirements of the job of candidate that best match his skill set as a promoter and salesman, and as a candidate he has run circles around many who had competence as “political office-holder” but less as “candidate.” Lindsey Graham and Martin O’Malley were successful political leaders who have been fired from the job of candidate. Either would probably have been successful in working with other politicians to accomplish his goals. The hiring process could be structured to try to seek out those qualities necessary in a good leader, but for now the process looks largely at other skills, skills at self-promotion rather than teamwork and self-confidence more than knowledge. Politics is a lot like dating. The skills necessary to be good at picking someone up in a bar are not necessarily the same that are required for a good marriage; but it is hard to get “promoted to spouse” if you can’t get the entry-level job of “first date.” Voters tend to be like people who marry based on looks and fun, instead of looking for the harder-to-spot qualities needed for a stable relationship like consistency, honesty, open-mindedness and (gasp!) willingness to compromise.

Many of the points I am raising here have been made also by political insiders, such as G. W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer.[1] Latimer points out that Jeb’s campaign strategy was based on the premise that we should choose a president who can actually do the job, not a stage actor whose tricks and performances are the most delightful. And he is getting whacked by Trump, who makes statements that are flat-out lies (like claiming that his book is the best-selling business book of all time), who struts and bellows and boasts about himself, and whose policy pronouncements, when he makes one at all, are either so vague as to be meaningless or patently impossible. Latimer accepts the fact that the job description of “candidate” is different than the job description of “office holder” and sees Jeb’s failure as one of not knowing that the president is, in fact, an actor. “In the modern era the president is also celebrity-in-chief,” he writes, “expected to comment on the deaths of popular actors or to watch the latest “Star Wars” film or to appear on Jimmy Kimmel alongside beloved comedians.”

Following the hints of The Peter Principle, I say we should not just see this as a fact; we should see it as a major cock-up of democracy. We, the people, are like a manager who hires computer programmers based entirely on who knows all the words to “Gin and Juice.” If the job of a voter is to vote for the best person for the job, we are ourselves incompetent. If we are led by fools, it is because collectively we ourselves are morons. The job description for “candidate” is completely FUBAR. When we promote the best candidate (meaning the best panderer, the best distracter, the best entertainer, the bullshit artist extraordinaire) we should not be surprised when we get a Congress that can’t do its job, governors who poison their constituents to save a little money, or pro-family state legislators who get busted committing adultery with each other in public. Expecting these sorts of politicians to lead a modern society is like expecting Ice Cube to solve a murder. We promote these poor souls to their levels of incompetence wholesale, and then re-elect them 91% of the time.[2] Is it because, as Dr. Peter said, that we will not fire the incompetent employee because that would be an admission of our own incompetence? Is it because we voters are so stupid that we can’t even recognize incompetence anymore, in ourselves or in others? Or is it because when the politician runs for reelection, we once again evaluate him or her by the same standards we used before, and choose the best huckster?

Well, why is that so bad? Ask the people of Kansas. In 2012, their new governor Sam Brownback announced what he called a “real-life experiment.” As a candidate, he promised he could cut taxes and balance the state budget all at once, because tax cuts always pay for themselves, particularly if they are taxes on business and the very wealthy. Two years later, Kansas was $300 million dollars in the hole, had economic growth half that of its neighbors, had slashed social services and increased its poverty rate, and had its credit rating slashed so that now the money it borrows to pay for those tax cuts cost its taxpayers even more. By any measure at all, the Kansas experiment has failed. And Brownback was reelected to continue the experiment. Tea-party economics in Kansas is a jug of milk that the voters took out of the fridge, smelled, said “That’s awful!” then put back, and took out the next day to see if it was any fresher now. After all, a candidate who can promise you that he’ll cut everyone’s taxes, pay all the bills and increase funding for education and highways and other government services—that’s still a good show.   People still pay to see “Star Wars” even though it is scientifically impossible, and people will still buy economic snake oil that promises gold will rain from the skies if we just cut taxes some more. We vote for the best show. We promote the best entertainer to the job of “leader.” And when things fall apart, we display our own incompetence by acting surprised.

[1] Matt Latimer, “Where Jeb Bush Went Horribly Wrong;” Los Angeles Times February 4, 2016 (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0203-latimer-jeb-bush-performance-20160203-story.html)

[2] Chris Cilliza, “People Hate Congress. But Most Incumbents Get Reelected. What Gives?” The Washington Post, May 9, 2013 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/05/09/people-hate-congress-but-most-incumbents-get-re-elected-what-gives/)

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4 Responses to ““The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)”

  1. lila1jpw Says:

    Dear ol’ Peter confessed that his Principle “worked” because a glass ceiling kept some competent (wo)men in place as administrative assistants–who actually do the job of their bosses. Reference law clerks who do all the research for the lawyers and the office managers who basically run the office for the CEO.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      We might also add staff of politicians. Ted Kennedy was known for having one of the best staffs on the Hill. He may have been good at making friends, but the real detail work was done by his staff; his main accomplishment was to have good people around him. The political system we have has devolved to one where the elected official is often a figurehead who raises money and campaigns, particularly in the House where everyone is elected for only a two year term. There isn’t enough time for a Representative to do anything but campaign for the next election; there isn’t much time to become any sort of an expert on the many complex issues requiring legislative attention. If the politician has just enough brains to assemble a team with brains and to spout whatever words they give him or her to say, the job will get done no matter how much of a boob the office-holder is. (And contrariwise)

      • lila1jpw Says:

        In Canada we found that having enough brains is not the only prerequisite. The politician who is a micro-manager can completely wreck a good civil service.

  2. Nemo Says:

    Itzhak Stern: Let me understand. They put up all the money. I do all the work. What, if you don’t mind my asking, would you do?
    Oskar Schindler: I’d make sure it’s known the company’s in business. I’d see that it had a certain panache. That’s what I’m good at. Not the work, not the work… the presentation.

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