By Konrad Putzier
Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Harry Reid, and John Kerry have two things in common: They are among the most influential current U.S. politicians, and they all graduated from law school.
In the United States, a law degree from an elite school has become to politics what a West Point education is to the army. You can still rise up the ranks without it, but having gone to Harvard or Yale Law usually excels your professional advancement. Other countries show the same phenomenon—although the preferred forms of education differ.
In the United Kingdom, virtually all of the country’s leading politicians hold a social science degree from Oxford or Cambridge. France’s political elite is teeming with graduates of the country’s leading policy schools, Sciences Po and l’École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Russia’s state is dominated by politicians trained in the country’s secret service.
Most voters in these countries have come to accept that their leaders share an educational background. But they should be more concerned. As political classes become increasingly homogeneous and ministries resemble university clubs, political debate suffers. More importantly, it means elected officials fail to fulfill their most basic role in a democracy: to represent an entire country in its social and cultural diversity. In the long run, this homogenization gives rise to popular disenchantment with institutions and benefits demagogues.
Unsurprisingly, a shared education already shapes the political culture in a number of countries. In the United States, the fact that most politicians have a legal training means legal fine print and constitutionality play a far greater role in political discourse than other countries. Only a parliament dominated by lawyers would ever decide to sue a sitting president—as the House Grand Old Party (GOP) did recently over Obama’s tweaks to his healthcare reform program. The GOP’s opposition to Obamacare has long focused on its alleged unconstitutionality. This may not seem strange to Americans. But in Great Britain (which does not have a constitution), the debate would undoubtedly center more heavily on practical matters, such as cost and economic benefits.
The preeminence of lawyers arguably also contributes to Congress’ vicious bipartisanship and inability to compromise. Attorneys and litigators play a zero-sum game: their victory is someone else’s loss. Common interest rarely exists. Some former lawyers have evidently transplanted this adversarial thinking into politics. As an excellent recent profile in The New Yorker shows, Senator Ted Cruz uses the same tactics as a politician that made him successful as a litigator. This has led him to take on radical positions and eschew compromise in order to change a debate in his favor.
In Russia, the fact that several of the country’s leaders (including Vladimir Putin) rose through the ranks of the secret service likely contributes to the Kremlin’s conspiratorial worldview. Spies live in a world where everyone is a potential enemy looking to undermine their country in the most devious of ways. Judging from interviews with Putin and his entourage, this thinking dominates Russia’s leadership.
In France, the left-wing Parti Socialiste (PS) and the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) are politically closer together than different wings of the Democratic Party in the U.S. And that shouldn’t be surprising: most of their leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande ,and Ségolène Royal studied at either at Sciences Po in Paris or ENA in Strasbourg. Developing separate ideologies is a lot harder if leaders are taught by the same people and frequent the same social circles.
Britain’s Conservative and Labour Parties have also grown a lot more similar since Tony Blair steered Labour toward the political center. Their leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who both studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, share the same problem: many voters view them as members of a detached elite that lack any connection to real people and their issues.
To be fair, a shared education also has its benefits. In the U.S., legal training should theoretically make legislators better at understanding and drafting laws. And in Europe, schools like ENA, Oxford, and Cambridge probably offer the best education available and should make politicians better at their jobs.
But the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. If a country’s political elite is significantly more homogeneous in its ideology and worldview than its population is, radical parties can flourish. The best examples are Britain and France. The rise of the xenophobic, anti-EU parties UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Front National has many causes, but dissatisfaction with the political elite certainly plays a role. In Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage (who never went to university) has won support as a pint-drinking, bantering populist who claims to understand the people better than Cameron or Miliband. In France, Marine Le Pen (who didn’t study at Sciences Po or ENA) has an easy time attacking the country’s two leading parties, as their policies and leaders have become harder to distinguish.
The homogenization of political elites is often a decades- or century-old process that will be hard to reverse. But it is possible if leading parties are willing to address it. In the U.S., the primary system means parties have limited sway over picking their leaders. But they could still put in more effort to promote non-establishment candidates beyond the Tea Party fringe’s elements.
In Europe, party members tend to pick their leaders. They should start considering a non-traditional background as a main criterion when choosing a candidate for office. The result could be a political class that is more in tune with the diverse viewpoints and lives of its voter base. In short, they could create a better democracy.
Konrad Putzier is a New York-based journalist. He blogs at thelongerview.org.