How many times have we heard variations of the following soundbites from enterprising political candidates: “My business experience has prepared me to be an effective leader.” “Because of my business experience, I know how to balance a budget, not spend more money than I have, and create jobs.” “It’s time to apply good business practices to Washington.” Etcetera. Etcetera. Voters could recite them as thoughtlessly as a child singing an advertisement jingle.
Yet, for all the repetition, these statements are hardly scrutinized. Part of the reason is because it’s difficult. What does it mean to be a “better” politician or even a successful one? That’s as subjective a question as one can ask in politics.
However, political science can answer the question, “Are business people more likely to get elected?”
According to two Pew Research studies conducted in June 2011 and May 2014, a plurality of Americans answered that a candidate with business leadership experience would not make them more or less likely to vote for them. In short, a plurality of Americans don’t really care about business experience when picking their politicians.
But do business people make good politicians?
First, to speak of business monolithically is nonsense. For example, Leftists sometimes treat “business” as a scapegoat, but it’s rightly pointed out that some businesses have nothing to do with each other.
To blame, for example, the 2008 global financial crisis on “business” is -- besides unhelpful -- a gross generalization. What does a mom and pop store in a small town have to do with traders on Wall Street? In short, close to nothing.
Being the owner of a restaurant is certainly much different than being the owner of a 100-person technology company, and even further from being a Fortune 500 CEO. So preachers of the notion that businesspeople make better public servants are at least committing the same crass mistake as dogmatic anti-business types.
At this point, only a historical perspective can make an attempt at the truth.
The only person to go from the private sector straight to the White House without any prior political experience was Herbert Hoover, the man who -- perhaps unjustly -- was blamed by Americans for leading them into the Great Depression.
The only president to have an MBA was George W. Bush, who -- almost needless to say -- will be remembered for 2 wars and economic policies that preceded the Great Recession. He was also the only CEO (Texas Rangers Baseball Club) to become president.
However, there do exist opposing anecdotes.
Mitt Romney went from CEO to popular governor of Massachusetts. Michael Bloomberg went from CEO to 3-term mayor of New York City (though the jury is out on whether NYC is better for it). Mark Warner was a telecommunications executive before becoming governor of Virginia and is now a U.S. senator.
In short, there does not appear to be a correlation between having business savvy and political prowess.
If you won’t take it from me, then take from Jon Corzine, former senator and governor of New Jersey and former CEO of Goldman Sachs. After he was ousted from office by Chris Christie, Corzine had this to say to Newsweek:
"The idea that you're accountable to a bottom line and to a payroll in managing a business—it gives voters the confidence that you have the right skills . But it's 20,000 people versus 9 million. I don't think candidates get the scale and scope of what governing is. You don't have the flexibility you imagined. There's no exact translation.”
Perhaps what determines a good business-executive-turned-politician versus a mediocre (or awful) one is the personality and character that got him or her to the executive position in the first place.
Those same enterprising candidates like to remind voters that the Founders did not intend for the country to be run by a class of “career politicians.” But all that means is that a truly representative American political system would have politicians who are business people as well as soldiers, teachers, laborers, farmers, and students. None of these backgrounds are necessarily superior to one another.
In short, American democracy is not a business (yet) and it shouldn’t be run like one either.