The Disadvantages of the 'Outsider' Politician

Jan 11, 2018

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards last weekend spurred almost immediate speculation by many about whether the celebrity would make a strong presidential candidate. In the days since, political analysts and regular people alike have debated whether her political skills would differ greatly from our current president, who also came from well outside the political sphere.

Julia Azari wrote about the concept of the outsider president this week for Vox's Mischiefs of Faction blog.  Azari, who is a political science professor at Marquette University, says outsider executives can be hamstrung by exactly the things that make them appealing to voters. 

"What I think is really important about this concept of the citizen or the independent president is this idea from being disconnected from party...What we're actually seeing from [President] Trump is by virtue of not being deeply connected, he has been more reliant of deep party loyalists or people who have been movement conservatives," Azari explains. "So that has made his presidency the opposite of an independent presidency."

Trump running in a competitive primary, she says, alienated a lot of the typical establishment Republicans. This, in turn, forced his team to bring in the most ideologically fired up elements of the party, as well as the "hackiest partisan hacks," Azari says with affection, to run the administration. 

"... we know that the presidency is not about a good speech."

The current presidency and interest in a Winfrey candidacy speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the office itself, she says.

While public speaking is an important skill to have, there are far more duties and intricacies to the presidency - such as policy decisions, team assembly, and quick decision making, particularly in the area of foreign policy. "I think that's where a lot of the pushback from political scientists have come to to this Oprah candidacy notion is because we know that the presidency is not about a good speech," Azari says.

"I don't think there's a clear cut-off point or a clear right amount of experience for the president," admits Azari. In fact, she has written about how some of our worst presidents in history came with years of political experience.

"What I think is important, though, is party building...having a strong bench of people with divergent views within the party tent all the way down into the state and local level," she says.  Azari believes that there is something lost when a person can catapult onto the national stage from outside of politics from a single event.

"At the heart of this is, is politics a glamour profession or is it a workhorse profession? And it's a little bit of both, but I think it's important not to forget the former."

"To me that cuts against the idea of working hard on a political career and building up in a more incremental way, and that's a cost I'm not sure people are always attuned to."

She continues, "If you're interested in politics being open and accessible, it's much easier to run for local office than it is to run for senate or the president. If you're really picking presidents in this kind of top-down way, that kind of guarantees it is only people who can enter at that level will be able to play."

While high profile people aren't necessarily going to run for school board president, city council or the statehouse, Azari says that the heart of the issue is: Is politics a glamour and showy profession or is it a workhorse profession? "And it's a little bit of both, but I think it's important not to forget the former."