Could a geek run the country? That is, assuming a geek could be elected (unlikely), would the country survive or even thrive with a geek at the helm? Since geeks tend to be at the higher end of the IQ spectrum, we might think one would be able to understand the national and international issues and be able to deal with them better than the less intellectually endowed (but more socially adept) persons who usually run for high political office. Is the best person for the job the one who can get elected?
Another way of looking at this question is to ask another one: What is the primary function of a president? If the answer is to look at internal and foreign problems facing the nation in a logical manner and come up with clever ways of solving them, then a geek might have a better chance than a traditional politician who often has little, if any, background in critical thinking but is endowed with great social skills. Unfortunately, the job requires more than just finding clever answers: A good president must be able to implement effective solutions using human resources. As we’ve learned from recent history, implementing solutions is much more difficult than finding effective solutions. While geeks might be good at finding technical solutions, using the human resources necessary to run a country is more difficult. “Reaching across the aisle” is more elusive than finding the best OS. In a way, geeks tackle the easy problems — easy because they have solutions. Politicians and psychologists tackle problems that are poorly posed and might not have solutions.
This line of thought was provoked by Governor Romney’s frequent boast that his successful career in business has prepared him to be an effective president. To me that sounds like saying that a successful career as a sidewalk artist prepares one to be a nuclear engineer or brain surgeon. So I looked up the careers of all the presidents to see what kind of background prepares a person to run a country. (This is easy to do thanks to Wikipedia.) If you want to see the presidents morph from one to another, check out this video (the music is good):
Strictly speaking, we have had no geek presidents, but what about the claim that a business background prepares one for the presidency? Excluding military service, teaching, farming, and law, we have Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and George W. Bush, who had business backgrounds. I think the consensus would be that none of these were exceptionally good presidents of the caliber of Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. So maybe without trying to espouse a political position, we can say that a business background is not proven by logic or experience to prepare a person to be president. Being a lawyer or surveyor is much better training. Presidents with a military background have a varied history including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower.
Which presidents are the closest to being geeks? Depending on how you define a geek, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter could qualify. I would include Jefferson because he was always fooling around with the latest technology and did not keep really good track of his finances. He pushed the limits of social respectability, and he was smart. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were both engineers before running for office. Both were considered highly intelligent. The country did well under Jefferson, but under Carter the prime rate soared to over 20% and we had international problems. In spite of being a recognized humanitarian, Hoover’s actions are associated with deepening the Great Depression. (In fairness, some conservative commentators disagree with this, but I disagree with them — so there!)
Neither a military nor a technical background has been definitely shown by experience to be determining factors in becoming an excellent president. So maybe electing a geek is the better way to go. Stephen Colbert has already laid the groundwork by forming a highly successful Super PAC (political action committee). This could be the path to 2016 for a geek ticket. Why not?
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (modified)