Competency as a Cultural Value

Earlier this week on NPR, I heard a man-on-the-street segment about the current election cycle featuring three Southern women, two Texans, one a former New Orleans resident who left after Katrina.

The first woman is an assistant manager in a store somewhere in Texas. She sounded bone-weary about both politics and life. When the interviewer asked what national issues she followed most, she said that she just keeps her head down and tries to keep her family afloat, that all that stuff is beyond her. But when she was asked a bit later about what she’d find attractive about a presidential candidate, she very forcefully turned to the issue of illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants, she said, are what has made it difficult for Americans like herself to access welfare and health care. The interviewer pointed out that illegal immigrants usually don’t make use of welfare or unemployment compensation, but the woman shrugged that off. Her resentments were deeper: she sees people that she’s sure are illegal immigrants driving by in nice cars and they seem far better off than she is. She’s struggling just to keep afloat, she’s had to give up health insurance for her children because it’s unaffordable. Her answer to the mystery of how people around her seem better off is that government has something to do with it but in a deep and enigmatic way, and that she’s looking for the candidate who will admit to it, who will mirror her structure of feeling, long before she’s looking for some highly concretized solution.


In the early 1990s in Zimbabwe, one part of my research concerned how the visible ownership of commodities performed or communicated wealth, and therefore aroused the dangerous jealousies of neighbors. This is a different kind of “mystery of capital” than what Hernando de Soto discusses. I am completely sympathetic to how southern Africans invoke ideas about witchcraft to explain how some people obtain wealth. Obviously it isn’t my own explanation, but there’s a sense in which it’s a completely reasonable attempt to connect the visible surface of material and economic life with the largely invisible mechanisms that move resources and capital around beneath the surface. How did your neighbor get a hold of bricks to complete one wall of his township house when you can’t get any? Where did the family next door get those new shoes, when you know that they don’t have any more access to wage earnings than you do? How did that man keep his job when you lost yours?

One story struck me as particularly potent. I was curious about zvidhoma, spirit beings who are basically the same as the tokoloshe that South Africans talk about. They’re said to be the tools of witches, able to exact invisible revenge on their victims by beating, wounding or causing illness in their targets. But on a number of occasions, I was also told cautionary tales about why you should never pick up what seems to be abandoned or unowned wealth or goods (like a bag of money or a wandering goat) because often these will have zvidhoma “stuck” to them who will then infest the unlucky soul who picks them up. Money and wealth circulate mysteriously, and carry hidden dangers. The people who get rich, in this worldview, are those who’ve learned to manage malevolent spiritual powers. If you’re not one of those people, you’ll just end up a victim if you chase after phantoms.


I’ve written before in my blog about how “blue state” elites in the United States continue to walk into the trap of blandly assuming that competency, skill and experience are sufficient and universally appealing attributes for a political candidate in national elections, as long as that candidate also has generally liberal views. Following the Iowa caucuses, I’m returning to this theme, because it’s one claim that seems to rub a lot of my readers the wrong way and I’m desperately hoping that this time, the message gets across to Democratic voters.

That woman in Texas is probably not a Democratic voter regardless of whom the candidate is. Her key issue maybe ought to be health care reform, but she’s enmeshed in another kind of narrative, one where racial resentment, among other things, is lurking very powerfully just underneath the surface. But even that is a layer covering the real depths. What I heard listening to her was someone who basically thinks that she’s in a hopeless place because some great engine is churning mysteriously in the depths of history, that life is just bad now. The other Texan on the segment talked about a completely different issue, changes to family life and the status of women, but there was some of the same declensionist mood in her remarks. Families and women are just different than when she was young, she said, and she’s mighty concerned about it all.

Educated liberals have a lot of quick answers to these kinds of statements: they’re factually wrong, they’re unfair, they’re reactionary. All true. But those rejoinders don’t get to the heart of what’s being said: that life is changing, that the changes are mysterious, that power lies somewhere far away from where the speaker exists, and that they don’t believe that there’s much to be done about it. They despair at the way the world and their corner of the world is nevertheless.

I loathe the resentment machine that is built into this structure of feeling, I hate its imperviousness to any persuasion or any evidence or anything outside of itself. When I talk to my mother-in-law, I often get a clear view of its workings, and the role that mass culture (including the mainstream media) play in providing fresh narrative hooks and telling incidentals to its churnings. In the last two years, for example, every time I talk to her, she wants to return to the story of Ward Churchill. Or she wants to talk about how terrible crime is. Or about the problem of illegal immigrants. And so on. These are immobile, self-reproducing, stories. Their truth in her mind is guaranteed by something far outside the actualities and realities that compose any given incident or issue.

But the thing of it is, in some measure, many ordinary Americans are not wrong to think that some of what afflicts or haunts their everyday lives is happening on scales of time and change and causality that aren’t reducible to the kinds of neat policy packages and governmental initiatives and ten-point plans that highly competent, experienced, meritorious political candidates tend to showcase. Like southern Africans, many ordinary Americans may invoke vague and metaphysical ideas about conspiratorial action and sinister agency to explain those larger transformations, but the basic take-away (as in southern Africa) is often: we’re fucked.

Offering a tangible plan that promises this tax incentive, that fact-finding commission, this reinvestment project, this funding for retraining doesn’t reach people who perceive the present as a slum left behind by a low-rent version of Benjamin’s angel of history. In fact, all it does is convince them that the candidate with the plans is one of those folks with his hands on the levers, one of them who always seems to come out on top. Yes, of course one of the things that makes me furious is that many Republican political leaders are exempted from this suspicion when in fact they ought to be the faces on the wanted poster, but that has something to do with the extent to which the Republican leadership since Reagan has largely avoided selling itself as the party of superior competency in policy-making, but instead as the party that can address the deeper spiritual condition of the nation, change the movement of the geist.

It’s too easy to just write this reading of the world off as false consciousness, as many liberals and leftists do in various ways, despite the fact that it is false in many of its particulars, partial in many of its manifestations, hypocritical and vicious in some of the ways it’s voiced and acted upon. It’s too easy because it’s also true.

There isn’t a policy package that can straightforwardly address some of the underlying structural changes in the global political economy that affect Peoria as surely as they affect Shenzen. Your wonkish arms are too short to box with that god. I don’t think anyone is the master of these changes, even though some people and social classes and systems have way more power to direct what is happening than others. Even corporations and governments, bankers and businessmen, technologists and artisans, are sometimes adrift on a swiftly floating river, bound to follow it to its coursing ends.

There isn’t a plan that can respond to how it feels to come to maturity within one structure of feeling and being in the world, the workplace, the home, your body and then wake one day like Gregor Samsa and find out that all those things are something utterly different than what they once were. My paternal grandparents lived in a little neighborhood in Los Angeles that was mostly white when they moved in, significantly latino when they grew old, and mostly southeast Asian when they died. It’s easy for me to be the cosmopolitan that I am and say that they should have cherished that change, recognized it for the profoundly beautiful and American thing that it was. I live in a world where that kind of pluralism means new things to teach and read, new cuisines to sample, new experiences and histories to enrich my community and my classroom. Because I live in a world where I have the tools to master and manage that kind of change. They lived in a world where that change meant that they’d go to the stores down the street and not be able to read any of the signs nor understand any of the conversations around them in the bank, the grocery store and the post office. I was taught to aestheticize and make use of difference. They weren’t.

In other contexts, humanistic intellectuals are perfectly well aware of this aspect of contemporary life. If we’re talking about local cultures in the developing world, we’re savvy. If we’re trying to define and grapple with the concept of modernity, we get the picture. Yes, sometimes we have our own kinds of passion plays, our own hinted outlines of a mystery clockwork churning in the depth of history, our own conspiratorial readings. Some of which aren’t wrong: there are bad people in the world who work busily to create or preserve outcomes at both big and small scales that benefit themselves and harm others. (Just as southern Africans are right: some of the powerful are witches, if by that we mean people who illicitly manipulate invisible and hidden forces to produce selfish gains for themselves at the expense of everyone else.)

Competency is something I value. I believe in it, I vote for it. It is what makes a leader (institutional, national, local) both legitimate and charismatic in my eyes. But that’s significantly because I inhabit social and economic worlds where competency has a very immediate and obvious impact on whether those worlds function well or not. I can see what happens when people like Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove are allowed to suborn the Department of Justice to narrowly self-interested, short-term political ends. I can see what happens when the power of the national executive becomes both unconstrained and arbitrary. I can see what happens when hacks are given the steering wheels of foreign policy.

That sight is partly a function of knowledge, which I still believe can have a universal value to everyone, at all levels. But it’s also self-interest. I am drawn to procedural liberalism because I live in worlds that are highly procedural and my skills and training are adapted to manipulating procedural outcomes. I think the trashing of the Department of Justice is bad for all Americans, but the fact is, I also am aware that it’s likely to be particularly bad for me and people like me. People with money, education, and a familiarity with the procedural world of law and government can navigate the legal system if need be, but only as long as it is a system where its declared aspirations for fairness and political neutrality at least vaguely match its practices, where the people who work the system have some kind of internalized commitment to those values. The more a system like that becomes transparent to short-term instrumental power, the more likely that even people who have knowledge, resources and cultural capital are likely to suffer at its hands. The same goes for most actions of both government and institutions (including private companies). If I feel that the people inside the US government who are contemplating a war are at least willing to consider the views of various experts about that war (or any other policy), to practice inclusive and deliberate governance, then I feel included, I feel like a citizen. But that says nothing to people for whom expertise is something for the eggheads in far-away places.

Our justice system regularly goes awry when it sweeps the poor up in its arms. When working-class Americans encounter government bureaucracy, they’re much more likely to feel completely lost in a maze of procedures. When decisions get made that have major consequences for all Americans, it doesn’t matter to ordinary people whether the State Department’s plan for Iraqi occupation was trashed.

It should. I would like to find a way to circulate an emotionally resonant, intangibly powerful, deeply felt national narrative about why it matters to govern well, why training and knowledge and skill are not just good things in and of themselves, but produce tangibly good outcomes in the lives of all Americans. I think it can be done, but it needs to work upwards from everyday life rather than downwards from the inside-the-Beltway world. Whether you work as a waitress in a greasy spoon, a middle-manager in a large firm, or as a high-powered professional, you’ve seen what happens to systems which otherwise were working just fine when someone who is both incompetent and intensely unprincipled gets access to power. (Unless you’re one of those people who is both incompetent and intensely unprincipled, in which case, read no further: this is not for you.) We all know how horrible and final the consequences of unnecessary failure can be.

To tell that story well, however, we’ve got to recognize that some changes are too big for anyone or any institution to manage compactly, that some transformations fall outside the sphere of policy and government, that it’s a mistake to promise to fix how people feel beyond simply being willing to listen and validate those feelings (however much you might not feel that way yourself).

Hilary Clinton is probably empirically right that it’s not enough to simply wish for change, and not enough to simply demand it. But in saying that you have to be an experienced hand who will work very, very hard for change, she continues to offer up the narrative of competency, of wonkery, of expertise, that has become the trademark of most national Democrats (with the notable exception of the other Clinton). You have to separate that which can be changed through the hard work of skilled policy formation from that which is operating at a completely different scale and sensation of change and dissatisfaction. A commitment to proceduralism and competency cannot be the end of your political or social appeal if you really aspire to lead or transform America.

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9 Responses to Competency as a Cultural Value

  1. aaron says:

    You wrote: “I would like to find a way to circulate an emotionally resonant, intangibly powerful, deeply felt national narrative about why it matters to govern well, why training and knowledge and skill are not just good things in and of themselves, but produce tangibly good outcomes in the lives of all Americans.”

    This sounds a great deal like the way I’ve heard Japanese people talk about their government. Not that they were always enthusiastic about it, but enough people tried to explain to me that while politicians come and go, the Tokyo University technocrats that actually run the country stay the same, for me to be convinced that it’s at least a significant attitude. It’s sometimes hard to avoid the Ruth Benedict fallacy of seeing Japan as America’s bizarro-world other, but I have symnpathy for where that belief came from. On the other hand, the fact that Japanese politicians seem to fight over even smaller increments of real policy alternatives than our “I’m not Bush” candidates in the US seems to me a good example of Ferguson’s “Anti-Politics machine” model of how expertise produces a kind of TINA consensus in negative ways (as you point out, the competence or lack of Tokyo University folks doesn’t have much to do with Japan’s economic malaise).

  2. ProtoScholar says:

    First of all, thank you. You have crystalized a bunch of things that have been banging around in my head for a long time.

    I thing you are generally right. Bush certainly didn’t run on competence; he ran on emotion and religion; a call to an American identity straight out of Rambo movies. Unfortunately that is a more powerful lure for the “average” American.

    Of course, that scares the heck out of me too. As the world gets more complicated it becomes easier to blame problems on unseen forces and far-reaching conspiracies. That, in turn, makes those who sell themselves based on a grand narrative and overarching vision more tempting than those who sell themselves based on experience and skill. In the end, the actor and storyteller has the advantage….

  3. SamChevre says:

    I largely agree with your analysis, but I do think you miss two important factors in “valuing competence.”

    First, pretty much everyone values competence only in areas where they care about and agree with the goals. Your competence at getting flowers to grow in your yard interests me very little. Your competence at stealing my stuff and not getting punished is more likely to make me hate you than to make me admire you.

    Second, “competence” is not just partisan because conservatives don’t care; it’s partisan because conservatives largely don’t agree with it. In the name of “competence”, there has been a huge transfer of actual power from “people I know, and basically agree with” to “people I don’t know, who don’t care about my interests” for almost everyone, but particularly for conservatives. Note, for example, public schools; 50 years ago, local communities controlled them; now, they are almost entirely controlled by education experts. In the process, they’ve become several times as expensive, and much less reflective of the values of the people whose children enroll in them; how much the median education they provide has changed is unclear, but it’s not commonly perceived as having improved. Hayek’s critique is on point; centralized “competence” is rarely as well-informed as decentralized decisionmakers are.

    Or, to put it in it’s briefest form: the competence of my local protection racket isn’t something I value much.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s very important, Sam. It’s very much what’s bundled into “the wisdom of crowds”: a notion that there is a form of competence that doesn’t reside with experts or education. That, too, is what is at stake here. I don’t think conservative politicians do particularly well by “the wisdom of crowds”–in fact, I think many of them have a largely exploitative, cynical view of what that entails. But liberal American politicians *and* elites don’t understand very well what it might mean, either.

  5. alkali says:

    I’ve commmented elsewhere that we shouldn’t underrate the possibility that many “independent” voters are not “independent” because they’ve exhaustively considered all the policy alternatives and find themselves in the political middle; rather, they are “independent” because they feel they have a civic obligation to vote but don’t like thinking about policy very much. With those voters, it doesn’t make sense to think, “Oh, I’ll capture their votes by taking a complex, nuanced position that I will justify by extended policy discussion.” Those voters just don’t like hearing discussion of policy — they would rather hear the bumper sticker response. This is not to say that candidates should never take complex, centrist positions, but that it may make little sense to take such a position on the theory that independent voters will enjoy hearing the candidate give an elaborate exposition of it.

  6. Doug says:

    I’ve obviously missed something in Hillary’s positioning — or maybe in the media’s transporation of it — because she’s one of two candidates in this race who are historic simply becuse of who they are. Maybe the media have gotten tired of interviewing grandmothers who say, “When I was born, women couldn’t vote. Now I will live to see a woman president.” But can people really be missing that point?

  7. jpool says:

    Nice piece (which I think really deserves to be worked up into an essay). I especially appreciate the connection that you draw to African witchcraft discourse. I haven’t seen that before.

    I listened to that interview too and cringed in my car as I heard that woman descend into her “Those people shouldn’t be doing better than me.” bit, but noticed, as you did, that she seemed more exhausted than hateful. I don’t know if this gives more reason for hope or not; if it means that some set of circumstances — local politics or national policy — could bring this woman together with her Mexican neighbors and her past her fears and resentments. It does certainly seem to be one of those places where the contradictions in capital, or rather the contradiction between the Republican party’s business segment’s interests in immigrant labor and the cultural conservative segment’s interests in narratives of resentment, is acting as a moderating influence on those racial politics.

    On the competency versus charisma point, I get frustrated about how these keep being played, particularly in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s speeches this weekend, as opposed categories. NPR kept interviewing Clinton supporters who talked about Obama “seducing” democrats, as if (Obama’s) charisma was essentially a form of snake charming, and (Clinton’s) competency was all about substance and not at all about appearances. Charisma matters, not just because we need to capture the hearts of those who can’t be bothered with policy discussions, but because people of all bacgrounds and predispositions really do need to feel inspired to put in the work for positive change.

  8. hestal says:

    I understand those women from Texas. I live in a rural area that has never permitted blacks to live or even stay overnight, but there are a few immigrants from Mexico and the number is growing.

    Lawrence E. Harrison, on page 55 of “The Central Liberal Truth” compares a “Progress-Prone Culture” with a “Progress-Resistant Culture.” As one might expect many of the comparisons are opposites. Mr. Harrison points out that there are two rules for deciding which category a particular culture belongs in:

    “(1) Does the culture encourage the belief that people can influence their destinies?
    (2) Does the Culture promote the Golden Rule?”

    Texas is far from a “Progress-Prone Culture.” Those women you wrote about have no influence over their destinies and I can testify that Texas does not promote the Golden Rule.

  9. WeakSister says:

    Great analysis! And while I do agree that the woman in Texas was voicing something that’s just part of human nature — and that we Democrats, in general, don’t do a good job of allowing for or speaking to human nature — there is another thing to take into consideration. There might actually be a problem. According to numbers I’ve seen, the population of illegal immigrants in the country, about 70 percent from Mexico and Central America, has more than doubled in the space of 10 years (from at least 5 million to at least 12 million). Maybe this woman’s view are somewhat accurate, if not very nice? I am pro immigration and think amnesty is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean that the presence of such a large number of people who are living in a highly insecure, shadow economy, isn’t actually a real problem! Particularly for towns that are dealing with significant influxes of new residents. This is another facet to the competency problem we Dems are blessed with — we also get in our own way sometimes, with our vaguely noblesse oblige attitude toward social challenges… Again, just a great post, if a little depressing — the natural conclusion is: President McCain. Say it ain’t so!

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