When will we stop electing political candidates from the ivory tower?
After nearly 15 months with an academic president in office, the Colombian people are realizing that putting a revolutionary academic in charge may have been unwise. This sends a warning that academics tend to be out of touch, inept at materially connecting with the average voter, unwilling to negotiate and compromise with other parties, and too wonky to present a simple, coherent argument. Nevertheless, political elites keep pushing for them, and a large chunk of the population is happy to support technocratic candidates.
No matter how appealing academics can seem as idealistic political candidates, once in office, they tend to be unable to govern.
South America’s recent example demonstrates this point. After Hamas’ attacks on Israel, Colombia’s economist-turned-president Gustavo Petro spent days on Twitter/X ranting about Israel’s “genocide of Palestinians,” comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler, and the IDF to the Waffen SS. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Dr. Petro stated that U.S. sanctions are primarily responsible for migration in the Western Hemisphere, all while rehabilitating the regimes in Carácas and Havana. As a result of the doctor-president’s misguided intellectualism, Colombia might lose its most significant international ally: the United States.
Petro has struggled to pass through any of his policy plans, including labor and pension reforms, due to his unwillingness to work with opposition parties in Congress and his eagerness to launch mass protests (some resulting in violence) in support of the policies. Instead of working with Congress, he has issued statements trying to pressure them to pass his plans, hoping they simply forget their political differences, break into an interpretive dance of unity, and pass the reforms. His stances showcase his fundamental inability to consider the intricate political and international implications of his statements and actions, and his contempt for process.
In my home country of Canada, Michael Ignatieff stands out as another academic whose political career has gone haywire. A political scientist who spent most of his life at elite institutions in the U.S. and Europe, Ignatieff decided his un-Canadianness would be perfect to head the Liberal Party. After calling himself an American many times, Ignatieff spent his three years in leadership flip-flopping on Canadian foreign policy issues and mishandling basic Parliamentary votes. After spending a full two years gathering support to run for office, he lost the 2011 election in an embarrassing fashion to a notoriously unpopular Prime Minister.
Political history is rife with examples of academics’ failures in public policy. One of the best in the US is Elizabeth Warren, who was a law professor at Harvard, UPenn, and UT Austin, among other prestigious universities. A famous technocrat, Warren has spent a decade repeatedly putting her foot in her mouth. There was the hilarious beer incident, where she thanked her husband for being home (where else would he be?) before awkwardly drinking a lager. She claimed indigenous ancestry to get brownie points despite being about as indigenous as Lindsey Graham. Interspersed with bad debate performances, her presidential run also tanked due to her own bad, wonky ideas which she failed to explain in plain language to average voters.
Former President Woodrow Wilson is another classic example of an academic’s perceived moral superiority turning into hubris. Wilson, who was a professor before serving as Princeton’s president, is remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history.
Wilson expanded US military presence to Russia, Mexico, and other countries based on a paternalistic mission to civilize their peoples, all campaigns which Wilson mishandled in cartoonish fashion. Wilson was one of the key architects behind the League of Nations, which imploded before being restructured into the United Nations, an institution famous for having any number of its own flaws. His hubris, acquired in the sacred halls of academia, resulted in his having tremendous difficulty listening to others, and to getting the US into geopolitical kerfuffles and internal turmoil. He was also a massive racist, eugenicist, and a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The main lesson to be taken from these recent and historical examples is that academics, despite having an immense amount of knowledge on particular issues, are unable to convert that knowledge into effective politicking. They may be able to survive the snappy electoral process, but when it comes to everyday matters and scandal-dodging, they nearly always fail.
No matter how complex their arguments, no matter how ideal their principles, academics have made terrible politicians. Political parties, social elites, and gullible voters should stop pushing for technocratic candidates whose idealistic policies only end in failure.