Posts Tagged ‘Ted Cruz’

“The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)

February 16, 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 (

[2] Chris Cilliza, “People Hate Congress. But Most Incumbents Get Reelected. What Gives?” The Washington Post, May 9, 2013 (

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. ii)

October 11, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. ii)


If you must negotiate, watch your enemy’s eyes.

   Klingon proverb


            The politics of the health care debate are thus clear.  First, the Republicans did not want to negotiate; they wanted to repeal and replace—repeal the law and replace Obama.  They lost.  In the game of Presidential Monopoly, they lost because the Democrats had more spaces they could collect on, and the Republicans managed to hit every one.  The Democrats had all those properties the Republicans mortgaged to put up those luxury hotels— the women’s space, the immigrant Americans space, the moderate’s space, the young people, and on and on.  But to ease up on the game metaphor a bit, they gave Americans a choice:  vote Romney and stop Obamacare, or vote for Obama and let this “terrible” bill stand.  And despite misgivings about the bill, I think most Americans want health care reform.[1]  Any politician who had come up with a genuine way to improve this bill, or even made an honest attempt, would probably have been lauded nationwide.  However, as they say, “all politics is local,” even when government is national; what is good for the nation is not necessarily what is good reelection and campaign contributions, and what is bad for the nation can be good politics. 

            The game now is not “stop Obama.”  He will not be president after the next election.  But the game is not “save the nation” either.  At this point, the game is “shut down the government.”  That is why 80 Republican congressional representatives said in August that the Republican Party should shut down the government.[2]  Any Republican who calls this “Obama’s Shutdown” is a bald-faced liar; but as a political move, it is a shrewd ploy, an attempt to get the benefits of shutting down the government while avoiding the blame.  Complaining that the Democrats won’t negotiate with them is, from an historical perspective, absurd; the Republicans refused to negotiate when they had the chance, preferring to force the Democrats to pass a bill without a single Republican vote even though it had more Republican ideas than it did Democratic ideas, just so they could run against the bill in the presidential campaign.  Since so many members of the Tea Party won election by opposing Obamacare, and government in general, they are still playing that trench-warfare political game. 

            Democrats, looking at Republican moves to divine their strategy, have concluded that the Republicans are not serious about wanting to merely delay or modify.  The Republicans have stated repeatedly that they wanted, above all else, to break health care reform as part of their strategy to capture the White House.  Democrats are reacting to what they perceive to be the Republican game.  Since they believe that Republicans are not serious in wanting to negotiate and are simply playing politics, the Democrats refuse to engage.  And, given statements from Republicans confirming this perception, Democrats have some reason to be suspicious.  For example, Senator Ted Cruz says “It is the view of every Republican … that Obamacare should be entirely and completely repealed.  Nonetheless, the House started with a compromise of saying not repealing Obamacare but simply that it should be defunded.”  It seems that they are not playing the negotiation game, but rather something more like a shell game, where one side keeps the ball moving until he can steal it without the other side noticing.

            Republicans, for their part, are also looking at the Democrats and trying to deduce what game they are playing.  Research has shown that most Republican voters are nostalgic for the “white majority America” that they remember from the 1950’s (primarily a romanticized 1950’s they watched on television and remember from childhood, not the one with lynchings and blacklisting and “duck and cover” drills in school).[3] They see Obamacare as a conspiracy to win Democratic votes by appealing to “those other people,” those gays or blacks or browns or Muslims or etc.  by giving them things.  Both the Republican leadership and the rank-and-file fear that if the Affordable Care Act is ever implemented, it might just succeed in giving people health care, and that people might like being able to get health care without fear of bankruptcy or of being dropped by their health insurer through no fault of their own.  Republicans believe that if people like the Affordable Health Care Act, they will become lifelong Democrats and that will be the end of the Republican party; and they believe that Democrats are simply playing presidential politics as well, offering a government giveaway for no reason other than to buy votes.    And most likely, the Affordable Care Act was just as serious or cynical a move as was the unfunded, $7 trillion program from the Bush administration, Medicare D, which no Republican presidential candidate spoke out against.[4]   This addressed an actual problem; it also violated core conservative principles by being a massive unfunded entitlement, though it appeals most directly to the core Republican constituency. 

To be continued….

[1] Hell, my own father, a medical doctor for well over forty years, said back the 1980’s that the medical business had changed so much that he wouldn’t advise anyone to become a doctor.  There were simply too many private-sector insurance bureaucrats and too many government bureaucrats between him and his patients.  He never wanted socialized medicine, having been a doctor in the Navy for four years; but the HMOs were not much better to work for.  If even a successful surgeon and leader in the state AMA recognized that American health care needed to change, how much more likely is it that the patients will suspect that something has to change before the whole thing collapses?  They are the ones who have to change doctors because their physician is no longer “in the network,” who have to wait until their kid’s ear infection causes 105º fever so they can get treated in the emergency room for free, or have to pay $100 for an aspirin in a hospital to cover the bill of the kid with the earache and life-threatening fever who came in last night and can’t pay his bill.

[3] See Democracy Corps, “Inside the GOP: Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, And Moderate Republicans;” Oct. 3, 2013 (

[4] Associated Press, “GOP 2012 Candidates Opposed to Repealing Bush-Era Medicare Drug Benefit;” Sept. 18, 2011 (