Why Are Liberals Constantly Fixated on “Competence” Instead of Politics?

Democrats for DeSantis? Seems hard to justify. William Cooper’s recent contrarian case for Ron DeSantis in the Orlando Sentinel is an unwittingly perfect satire of contemporary American liberalism’s technocratic obsessions.

Governor Ron DeSantis speaking at an event in Lexington, South Carolina, on June 2, 2023. (Peter Zay / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Appearing in the Orlando Sentinel, William Cooper’s “A Democrat’s Case for DeSantis” is, on one level, an example of the kind of vapid contrarianism beloved by editors at many op-ed pages. Florida’s Ron DeSantis bans books, demonizes trans people, wages war against teachers’ unions, and sends SWAT teams to the homes of ex-felons who register to vote. So you’d think that a Democrat would dislike him. But Cooper is a Democrat and he’s making the case that DeSantis should be the next president. How interesting. Much more clickable than some boring anti-DeSantis op-ed!

On another level, though, Cooper’s op-ed is a fascinating window into how liberal technocrats see the world. Partisan polarization being what it is in America in 2023, I’m sure very few of Cooper’s fellow liberals are ready to follow him to this particular conclusion. But he’s arguing from premises a great many of them share. The result is an unintentional but devastating parody of contemporary American liberalism.

William Cooper and the Job of the President

Cooper’s book Stress Test: How Donald Trump Threatens American Democracy came out to generally positive reviews last year. I’m not sure how much notice anyone really took of what was surely at least the ten thousandth anti-Trump book to be published since 2015, but Publisher’s Weekly called it a “compelling rallying cry for democratic institutions under threat in America.” Kirkus said it was not only “compelling” but “sensible.”

So what’s an officially certified Sensible Compelling Liberal from 2022 doing making the case for Ron DeSantis in 2023?

He acknowledges that DeSantis is “boring,” “stiff,” “mean,” and “about as likable as a stinky sock.” Oh, and he’s “on the wrong side of numerous important policy debates — from immigration, to taxes, to judicial appointments.” Naively, you might assume that the premise Ron DeSantis has policy goals that would make the country worse and also he’s just awful as a human being would be the starting point of a case against DeSantis.

But, Cooper argues, DeSantis is the lesser evil. The existing president has been undergoing embarrassingly obvious mental and physical decline for years. (Fact check: true.) And the return of Donald Trump is hardly an appealing alternative. (Again, very true.)

But even if we pretend that the three of them are the only candidates and ignore the always useful rule of thumb that it’s not always important for everyone to express an opinion about everything, there’s one hell of a leap from the premise that the other two are really bad to the conclusion that DeSantis is better.

The key point, according to Cooper, is that, “The President of the United States should be very competent.” He thinks Biden and Trump both fail that test. But:

He’s very competent. A Yale- and Harvard-educated lawyer, DeSantis served in the Navy (including on a tour in Iraq) before entering Congress and then becoming Florida’s governor. And he’s effectively achieved his objectives in Florida — regarding both politics and policy.

DeSantis’ competence matters. Why? Because the most important quality to have in a U.S. president is competence. The biggest questions facing the country do not fall comfortably along some left-right axis but instead require prudent and empirically effective leadership to address. How should we approach our global rivalry with China? How should we regulate artificial intelligence? How should we participate in an international economy complicated by dysfunction and violence around the world? And so on.

Cooper’s casual conflation of executive competence with Ivy League credentials is telling. Barack Obama went to Columbia University for his undergraduate degree and Harvard University for law school. He was the president of the Harvard Law Review. Lyndon Johnson went to Southwest Texas State Teachers College. But I’ve never heard anyone claim with a straight face that Obama was a more effective political operator.

Putting that aside, though, it’s true enough that, when the courts haven’t struck down his initiatives as unconstitutional, DeSantis has often “effectively achieved his objectives in Florida.” Is that a good thing? Why is competence “the most important quality to have in a U.S. president”? If someone has horrible goals that make our collective lives harder, harsher, and more unequal, shouldn’t we hope for them to be incompetent in carrying them out?

For all his Cooper-diagnosed “outright incompeten[ce],” Trump actually achieved quite a bit as president. He carried out the generational conservative goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, for example. And he managed to cross off a lot of items in the Right’s foreign policy wish list, from kiboshing the Iran nuclear deal to moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem to amping up US support for Ukraine to doubling the rate of drone strikes in Yemen. And he did a lot to make it easier for bosses to bust unions, run unsafe workplaces, and fire troublemakers.

Perhaps a more competent version of Trump would have been able to do even more. If so, shouldn’t anyone with political preferences to the left of Sean Hannity be thanking the gods that Trump wasn’t more competent? And shouldn’t all that make us particularly disturbed by the thought that DeSantis might govern like a more competent Trump?

Cooper tries to carve out areas that allegedly fall outside the “left–right axis” and merely call for apolitical problem-solving, but let’s take the items on his list one at a time.

China? Governor DeSantis is a demented superhawk who never shuts up about the malign influence allegedly being “exerted by the Communist Party of China” in the state of Florida.

Artificial intelligence? That’s a question of tech regulation. One only has to look at the way DeSantis slobbers over billionaire Twitter owner Elon Musk to get a pretty good idea of how little he’s likely to do anything that might curb the industry’s profits.

How to “participate in an international economy complicated by” blah blah bah? The less pretentious way to say that would be “trade policy” and it absolutely does not fall outside of the realm of political contestation. Again: Who could seriously doubt that a President DeSantis would be a faithful servant of corporate America?

DeSantis went out his way to clarify in his new book that when he rails against “elites” he’s not talking about how much money people have but whether they share the elite’s “ideology, tastes, and attitudes.” In other words: Bust all the unions you want. Pay poverty wages. Pollute the drinking water. Go nuts — just as long as you never tell me your preferred pronouns. I hated that shit in college.

A Reductio ad Absurdum of Mainstream Liberalism

At the risk of exposing myself as a member of what DeSantis would consider the elite — i.e., an adjunct professor who doesn’t have health insurance — there’s a Latin phrase that kept popping into my head as I read Cooper’s piece. It’s one that students are taught in introductory logic and critical thinking classes.

A reductio ad absurdum argument is one that shows a premise to be false because it leads to an absurd conclusion. In formal logic, it would be a contradictory conclusion, but in the broader sense of the phrase, it just has to be a conclusion that’s so obviously wrong that it gives us a good reason to reject the premise that gets us there.

Cooper’s inane glorification of “competence” detached from any sort of meaningfully political considerations is anything but unusual in mainstream liberal circles. In 2016, for example, I lost track of how many times I heard liberals express amazement that anyone would vote for Bernie Sanders (in the primaries) or Trump (in the general election) when Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate to ever run for president.

An old meme that still periodically circulates on social media compares the credentials of Rachel Maddow (PhD from Oxford University) to college dropouts like Glenn Beck, Hannity, and the late Rush Limbaugh. Even some liberals who thought Trump was literally a fascist would sometimes lapse back into this approach and express relief about some Trump appointee or other by saying, “Well, at least he’s competent.”

This is a view of politics not as a battle of conflicting values or policy goals — never mind conflicting economic interests — but a matter of “solving” problems that can be understood in a value-neutral way. Elections aren’t power struggles between competing factions with clashing goals but technocratic job interviews where the candidate with the best CV should be shoo-in for the job. If anything, for this kind of liberal, the worst thing you can say about someone is that they’re an “ideologue” — someone too blinded by ideology to gravitate toward the smartest “solutions” to our common problems.

“A Democrat’s Case for DeSantis” is a beautiful reductio ad absurdum of technocratic liberalism. As silly and clickbait-y as the premise seems, I want it to be widely read. Hell, I want it to be reprinted in the New York Times. Even on my most pessimistic days, I’m pretty sure at least a few of the people in the grips of this kind of technocratic liberal ideology are capable of growing and changing and doing better — and those people should take a long look in the mirror.