Think back to your middle or high school days. You probably had a classmate who always had an arm raised. Knew every answer. Wanted all the credit. Sought the best grades. Ended up at an elite college. Maybe you were that classmate. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir.
In Alexander Payne’s movie “Election,” adapted from a Tom Perrotta novel of the same name that’s about to get a sequel, the main character is a teenage girl called Tracy Flick, played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon. Tracy is zealous, ambitious and adroit. She desperately wants to win her election for student body president. The only obstacle preventing her from doing so is her social studies teacher, Jim McAllister. McAllister is obsessed with thwarting her. At the end (spoiler alert), Flick still wins. Fair is fair; she deserves her victory. She’s worked too hard and wanted it too much to lose. Not so in real life.
Somehow, in America’s collective memory, McAllister has been all but forgotten, yet “Tracy Flick” became a reviled name. Instead of an admirable student who pulls herself up by her bootstraps — Flick is raised by a single mother who has taught her to fight for everything she gets — the character is perceived as devious and Machiavellian. I wonder, does this remind you of anyone, or of any situation?
I’m not the first to make the comparison. In 2008, New York Magazine published an article called “Is Hillary Clinton indeed Tracy Flick?” expounding the similarities between both women. Undeniably, there are many. And that’s a good thing. That’s why it’s baffling that the communal American psyche seems to think that it’s not.
At its core, this Tracy-Clinton analogy seems to point to a larger issue: American voters, for the last few decades, seem to be repudiating meritocracy. Last Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated a recall attempt to remove him from office. Whether the recall was justified is up for discussion; the candidates that ran against him are not. The slate was ludicrous. From Caitlyn Jenner to Larry Elder, the Republican Party offered no laudable alternative to the lackluster governor. Thankfully, California voters found them inadequate; the same cannot be said for what happened in the 2016 presidential election.
We all know the story. All signs pointed to a Clinton landslide, Republicans couldn’t find someone to compete and then the golden-haired real estate magnate appeared from out of nowhere. Whole new ballgame. Clinton lost and the country went crazy. Many theories were soon formulated about why it had happened. I had my own, and still do — America hates credentials. Trump wasn’t the first candidate to abjure the “establishment” or “the swamp,” as he called it, and he certainly won’t be the last. People love to hear that. Voters love an outsider. Be it a radio host (Mike Pence), a political neophyte billionaire (Donald Trump) or even a long-time curmudgeon within the Washington political arena (Bernie Sanders). Those with experience, practice and knowledge are either rejected and/or cast aside.
Some might say 2016 was the third time it happened to Clinton. First with Bill, her husband, who had been governor of Arkansas but still had the personality of a frat boy when in the White House, compared to her poise and diplomatic know-how. Then with Barack Obama, who was only a one-term senator when he ran against her in the ‘08 primaries and finally with Trump.
This is not to say that credentials should be the sole factor when deciding to vote for a candidate — it shouldn’t. But it shouldn’t count against them, either. Secretary Clinton had many flaws. Her career had been plagued by scandals, from Benghazi to her email fiasco. To not vote for her for those reasons can be understood. Nevertheless, to assail her for having had some of the most pivotal jobs in American political life is absurd. Similarly, last year, then-candidate Joe Biden was under constant attack by both the left and the right because he had been a senator for 36 years and a vice president for eight. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? Don’t we want candidates who know what they’re doing? Why are credentials lauded in this country but lambasted as well?
Both Clinton and Newsom are problematic candidates. In many ways, Biden was too. Yet there are no top drawer Republican nominees. We need them. And we need for the country to demand that suitors to these premier jobs — from both parties — have the credentials to make them worthy. No more Trumps. No more Caitlyn Jenners, Larry Elders, Curtis Sliwas, Andrew Yangs, Kanye Wests or Tom Steyers.
This is a memo to people like Matthew McConaughey and The Rock. Please, please, stay far away. You’re excellent at what you do. Leave politics to the people with credentials. Leave it to the Mitt Romneys and the John McCains. Leave it to the Hillary Clintons. Leave it to an adult Tracy Flick and all she symbolizes. Among them, the people will decide who should be elected. Because, irritating as they can be, the students with the arms raised in the third-grade classroom studied and worked hard. They were accomplished and smart. And eventually, they are the ones who should run cities, states and countries.
Miguel Calle is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.