I've been watching two things of interest on TV lately.
(But wait, there's more!)
The first was Monday's Republican Presidential debate in New Hampshire. In my reasoned and not-at-all-biased mind of a commie pinko socialist liberal who hates America, the thing was frankly a two-hour seven-car train wreck. The consensus "winner" people seem to have decided on is a bit of a split. Some call it for Michelle Bachmann for her command of people's attention. Some call it for Mitt Romney because in a two-hour debate for a nomination that at most one out of the seven people on stage can win, and with Romney the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, the other six were given every opportunity to try to beat on him to drag his numbers down and seemed to actively avoid it as if to concede New Hampshire to Romney straightaway.
Gun to my head, I fall in the Romney camp. Unless the other six are trying to be Romney's running mate, failing to attack him made absolutely no sense. But then, neither did much else on Monday night. From where I sat, everyone was acting as if the general election were a week away and that, aside from whoever happened to be speaking, Barack Obama were the only other one on stage. And also that there was no moderator; anything CNN's John King asked was almost guaranteed to be taken as a suggested topic rather than a direct question to be answered, even if King made an explicit appeal to answer the original question.
No matter what the topic eventually turned out to be, most answers would inevitably end up as either a direct attack on Obama, a proposal to privatize something or other, or both. Newt Gingrich, most bewilderingly, suggested that privatizing NASA after the moon landing in 1969 would have been preferable to what we have actually done since, claiming that if we had privatized after 1969, we would "probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles." Romney, who you'll remember I had pegged as the "winner," implied to King if not outright stated that we cannot afford to fund disaster relief efforts. Herman Cain, asked about not being comfortable with having a Muslim in his cabinet, answered that "I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims- those that are trying to kill us. And so when I said I wouldn't be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones who are trying to kill us."
I'll spare you the rest. Suffice to say, you wonder just how people like this have been able to penetrate the highest, most important level of debate this nation can offer. You- at this point I am of course brainwashing you to think in a way that lets this article progress smoothly- realize that, with the exception of Cain, the voters at some point allowed all of these people to hold public office at a high level. You wonder if there isn't some way to nip these people in the bud before they get this far. Perhaps one could create an easy-to-understand, generally-acceptable, and above all reliable way to tell who at least knows enough of what they're doing to where they won't completely embarrass themselves.
I have to do everything for you people, don't I?
It so happens that the second TV show of interest was the National Geography Bee, coming fairly on the heels of the National Spelling Bee. In both competitions, you have some of the smartest kids in our elementary and middle schools facing off against each other in those two respective fields until only one remains to claim a big scholarship, among other prizes. Both bees, at their national finals, are full of kids with obviously bright futures ahead of them. After all, they just proved to a nationwide audience that they're smarter than millions of their peers in their age group. That tends to look good on a resume.
So why not make a Political Bee?
A Political Bee, as I imagine it, would consist of the kind of questions that we would expect an elected official to know the answers to. You can do this without being explicitly partisan. You couldn't ask, for example, 'Which economic system is better, that of John Maynard Keynes or that of Adam Smith', but you could ask 'Which economist first described the marketplace as an 'invisible hand'?' (Smith.) The general rule is, if Alex Trebek could use the information in Jeopardy, you could use it here. Remember, this is not a debate. This is a quiz, with explicit right and wrong answers.
Among the things that would work in a Political Bee:
*Knowledge of various issues important to the catchment area of the participants (the scope of questions would be scaled up or down depending on the level of competition; more on this in a bit)
*General and political history of the catchment area
*Electoral maps of previous elections
*How specific people in a particular legislative body voted on a certain major bill in the past (this wouldn't necessarily have to be recent- don't think TARP, think the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)
*How a particular person voted over time on a variety of bills
*The rules and procedures of the political process relevant to the catchment area
*An ethics round- various ethical dilemmas are presented, a solution provided, and the question is, do the rules say that was an appropriate solution
Questions would be scaled depending on the level of competition- at the local level, the school level (or sponsor level depending on how you conduct the preliminaries), kids would be asked local-level questions. In the written test to qualify for state, they get bumped up to county- and district-level matters. At the state level, they get asked questions about the entire state. Only in the national finals do questions about foreign policy, Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency come into play. Why is this? Because not every politician is going to make it to the federal level. There are state legislators, mayors and city aldermen all over the place, though. Each level of the bee would be designed to test your capability to lead at that specific level. As you progress further into the bee, you get tested for bigger and bigger offices. Ideally, the last few standing would be kids fit to run for Congress.
These kids, and all others who had any sort of a showing in the bee, could then, ideally, use their bee performance as part of a campaign resume, should they decide to pursue politics. Voters would know just how far they got, and therefore, what level we could be reasonably certain they'd be fit for. If you won at school level, you proved you would be a good local official.
This has historical precedent. As we noted here back in April, China had for 1,300 years the Imperial Examination system, in which you essentially tested into the ability to hold high-level government jobs, and could make multiple attempts at it. In fact, the more I look at it, the more the Political Bee starts to resemble the exams themselves- different levels of exams for different levels of service; the ability to just brush yourself off after failing and try again next year; the general principle that anyone from any corner of the country, provided they test well enough, can prove themselves capable of leading at the highest levels.
There were two main problems with the exam system, aside from the emphasis on rote learning, but the bee can fix them easily enough. The first was corruption and cheating- some Chinese emperors cancelled exams and simply sold the political positions- but unless students are buying answers to questions, that won't be much of a concern. (And if it does get out that a participant in a Political Bee cheated, that's the kind of problem the voters can fix in a heartbeat when that person tries to run for office later.) The second is cost- studying for the exams was sometimes so expensive that only the elite could afford to do so. In this day and age, however, that's less of a concern than ever. Anyone with access to a computer or a library or even City Hall can study for a Political Bee. The only real issue is finding schools and/or sponsors willing to host the preliminaries.
Whether the eventual products of the Political Bee eventually use those smarts to do good or harm is ultimately up to them. But at the very least, we know those smarts will exist.