Stop me if this is either TMI, or if it’s just distastefully the most old-white-guy thing you’ve ever heard: I have some spot on my bladder, which requires getting a really fun procedure called a cystoscopy every year while wearing a paper-thin robe that no matter what I do will not stay closed in the back. Anyway. The reason I bring this up is … I go to a big, muckety-muck urologist for the privilege of going through this annual ignominy, someone who once spent years and thousands on medical school and who today is a widely published leader in his field. An expert, in other words. Call me crazy, but when it comes to sticking some thin camera inside my body, I decided not to see if a reality TV star or a Wall Street titan or a criminal defense lawyer felt like doing it for me.
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Yet, it kinda feels like that’s all we do as a culture now: We devalue the very idea of expertise itself. “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” writes Tom Nichols in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
Now, this isn’t an endorsement of the status quo. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but we only know that by answering wrong facts with right ones. Instead, we’ve gone all fact-free. Which is why Nichols’ eulogy for expertise seems particularly apt these days in our city, especially in our politics. Politics actually requires a deft and discrete skill set, yet we’ve consistently elected people of late who have never really performed the act.
Think of it: Before they took office, did now-disgraced former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, District Attorney Larry Krasner, Governor Tom Wolf, or New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ever have to build fragile coalitions and struggle to keep them together? Ever have to empower stakeholders or strike deals to turn potential adversaries into allies? Ever have to paint a broad, inspiring vision that transcended divisions of race, class and gender? Ever have to swallow their own pride in service of something larger? These are the amino acids of successful governing, and they require a mix of skills and experience not normally found in the bare-knuckled worlds of courtroom or C-suite drama.
You think the next time the district attorney finds himself negotiating a plea that questions about whether he can be trusted won’t be raised? Word is bond in politics, and, even though it was for a good cause, Larry Krasner called his own into question.
By all accounts, Krasner deserves credit for his role in the negotiations with the Nicetown shooter that defused a potentially deadly scenario. But when, after all was said and done, the district attorney took a victory lap and boasted that the offer he’d put on the table for the perpetrator was, in his words, “phony baloney,” it belied Krasner’s lack of experience.
“We need to be clear here,” Krasner said of the 20-year prison deal he agreed to with the suspect. “This was bullshit from the beginning.”
In addition to never having been a prosecutor before, Krasner has never run an enterprise larger than a small law firm; in his boasting, his lack of expertise showed. To be clear: It wasn’t the faux offer that revealed Krasner’s amateurism. That seems like it was the right thing to have done. It was his public revelation that was a self-inflicted wound to his own credibility. You think the next time the district attorney finds himself negotiating a plea that questions about whether he can be trusted won’t be raised? Word is bond in politics, and, even though it was for a good cause, Larry Krasner called his own into question.
Across the river, Wall Street Master of the Universe-turned-Governor Phil Murphy has similarly shown himself to be lacking the political gene. Murphy has gone to war with his own party—in the form of party boss George Norcross, and Norcross’s many foot soldiers in the state legislature. This is not a defense of Norcross’s legendary backroom machinations, though any fair reading of what Norcross has done in Camden—the resurrection of schools and police force, for example—can only lead one to conclude that his interventions have, on balance, helped the city.
But he and Murphy are engaged in a ferocious death match over the exorbitant economic development tax breaks that have gone to Norcross allies—a dispute that is likely more about power than tax breaks. In that war, Murphy has shown himself—like Krasner—to be lacking the skill set necessary to prosecute such an ambitious campaign. When he seemed to cut $5 million from the budget of Cooper Health Care as an act of political retribution against Norcross, Cooper’s chairman, it looked like the rookie governor was more concerned with political scoreboard-settling than treating cancer patients. “It takes a special kind of incompetence to go up against Norcross and appear to be the heartless one,” one Jersey insider remarked to me.
Owing to their inexperience, both Krasner and Murphy are engaged in fights with those who could easily be their allies—Attorney General Josh Shapiro in Krasner’s case, members of his own party in the state legislature in Murphy’s—and the result is that both come off looking small, unable to get stuff done for their constituents.
Is there another model? Yes, but it’s not one currently in vogue. Here in Philly, we tend to think of his mayoralty as the apex of his career, but it was in his governorship that Ed Rendell modeled for us just what expertise in politics can render. At the time, there was criticism of Rendell for being a mere dealmaker. Well, our politics nowadays could sure use some deals. Rendell, alternately working with and cajoling a recalcitrant Republican legislature, was able to invest record amounts in education statewide. As a result, when he left office, nearly 300,000 more students had risen to performing at grade level academically; eighth-grade reading scores were the best in the nation; unemployment was below the national average; the state was third nationally for green energy jobs and second in producing solar energy jobs. Unlike other tax-and-spend liberals, Rendell cut waste, too, saving taxpayers nearly $2 billion by streamlining government.
How’d he do it? First off—and Krasner in particular should take note—by being flexible ideologically. Rendell pushed for gun control, clean energy, and sought to increase income and cigarette taxes, but he also angered his base by taking on unions and backing legalized gambling. Moreover, he’d hold his nose and make deals with those he disagreed with. Perhaps the best example of that was his first term pledge to not campaign against Republican legislators who voted for his budget plan, which included not only a record investment in education, but also legalizing slot machines and using the revenue to cut property taxes. There was grumbling, but can you imagine such a deal today?
Owing to their inexperience, both Krasner and Murphy are engaged in fights with those who could easily be their allies, and the result is that both come off looking small, unable to get stuff done for their constituents.
“I didn’t just say I wouldn’t campaign against them,” Rendell told me recently. “I also wrote them a letter that I told them they could use in their advertising, thanking them for voting for $300 million in education.”
I asked: Would such a scenario be possible today? He smiled. “The far left progressive movement would throw a fit,” he said, smiling slyly. “But I’d do it anyway.”
So what is the skill that Rendell possessed, and that so few of our modern-day elected officials exercise? “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose,” the late and loquacious New York Governor Mario Cuomo used to say. Governing is often plodding and maddening. Those who approach it with True Believer zeal, to hear Rendell tell it, might appeal to ideologues but actually, ironically, they serve the status quo. Because if everything is a life and death struggle, then nothing is. Rendell’s mantra as governor was decidedly unsexy —“Live to fight another day” he’d say—but then you look back, as I just did, and you’re kind of stunned at the wins such a pragmatic approach was able to put up on the scoreboard.
When Rendell was negotiating with Republican legislators in safe districts, he says, he’d often begin with a simple question: What do you need? That’s what we’ve lost in our politics—elected leaders open to sizing up the needs of their opposition, and then able to use that intel to turn adversaries into allies. It begs the question: How often do you think Krasner or Murphy have asked their political enemies what they need in order to get to a place where they all work together for the benefit of the average citizen?Photos courtesy Michael Candelori / Wikimedia Commons (Krasner) and U.S. Department of State / Wikimedia Commons (Murphy)