The War on Professionalism

Jonathan Rauch

Winter 2021

On June 17, 2017, President Donald Trump directed the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn packed up his belongings and prepared his letter of resignation, telling the White House chief of staff that the president had told him to "do crazy shit."

Initially, Trump backed off. But about six months later, through the White House staff secretary, he ordered McGahn to create a file memo denying accurate news reports that Trump had demanded Mueller's firing. McGahn refused to create the false record. Finally in the Oval Office, the president personally pressured McGahn to deny the story. McGahn again refused.

Other events from the headlines tell similar tales: The president falsified a hurricane forecast and pressed the National Weather Service (NWS) to repudiate its own forecasters. Days later, the agency's inspector general announced an investigation into the event, noting that it "call[ed] into question the NWS's processes [and] scientific independence." On another occasion, the president alleged that the FBI had launched an improper investigation of his 2016 campaign. In response, the Justice Department's inspector general conducted a detailed review and, though it found flaws in the investigation, firmly repudiated the president's "witch hunt" story. And in August 2019, an intelligence professional reported behavior by the president that appeared bizarre, alarming, and abusive, at no small risk to his own career. Four months later, the president was impeached.

Trump's presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers "dopes and babies," excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

If anything, the Trump era has shown the need to understand and more fully appreciate professionalism — an often taken-for-granted concept in American public life. What is it? How does it relate to elitism? What are the consequences of its erosion? And how might we think about strengthening it?


As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word "professional" meant. He replied, "it means you do something for a living." He contrasted it with the term "amateur," meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father's definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don't feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute's Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These "structures of social life" provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don't realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism "tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?' And his profession will generally have an answer to that question."

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Almost invariably, the gatekeepers and guardians of professionalism are institutions. Groups like the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the News Leaders Association promulgate ethical codes, set occupational and educational standards, issue credentials, organize conferences and social events, provide continuing education, confer prizes, and sanction bad actors. When Trump insisted that Don McGahn violate legal ethics, McGahn had his professional standing as an attorney to think about. He might have had in mind the fact that although Bill Clinton survived impeachment, his law license was suspended.

That said, professionalism and institutionalism are not completely congruent. Since many institutions cater to amateurs, professionalism is a narrower category than institutionalism. Families, churches, unions, and volunteer groups may all be examples of institutions, yet each is made up largely of non-professionals, and some institutions — families, for example — are intentionally not professionalized. At the same time, professionalism is also a broader category than institutionalism, since we understand professionalism to be an individual trait as well as an organizational one.

In fact, every professional is a kind of microcosmic institution — an institution personified. You do not need to be a member of a formal profession to display professionalism; we can say of a high-school educated stonemason or carpenter "he's a true professional" and know exactly what is meant. Whether we praise the professionalism of a concrete pourer, a hairdresser, or a clarinetist, what we mean is that we rely on this person to approach a task according to the accepted standards of the profession and with integrity toward its mission.

Professionalism overlaps with both merit and expertise — after all, one cannot properly call himself a professional without them. But it implies something different from either — namely, a commitment to a correct approach to personal conduct that transcends individuals' knowledge and character. Professionals are distinguished not just by the knowledge they possess, but by the traditions and practices they represent. With years of inculcation and reinforcement, professionalism becomes not just a choice or even habit, but a matter of personal identity. It teaches us what we mean by the term "integrity."


Since professionalism is characterized by boundaries between right and wrong ways of doing things, our professional identities manifest in what we do. However, a professional may also be someone who chooses not to do certain things, such as cutting corners to serve convenience, or self-interest, or partisan loyalty. Indeed, professionals often define integrity in large measure by the conduct they disallow — in themselves and in others. A professional intelligence analyst does not spin his findings politically. A professional journalist does not invent sources. A professional scientist does not monkey with data. A professional accountant does not allow a CEO to cook the books. A professional police officer does not allow a partner to plant evidence. A professional lawyer does not permit a client to break the law.

And they are indignant when they see violations of such standards. After Trump doctored the weather report, senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials seemed to back the president. In response, the agency's acting chief scientist called their reaction "very concerning" and vowed to pursue these "potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity." That is how indignant professionals sound. Or they might say someone is trying to "do crazy shit."

Professionals are thus the first, and often the only, line of defense against predatory elites who seek to abuse or circumvent institutional safeguards. That is why demagogic populism is, among other things, fundamentally a war on professionalism. It is why opportunists and rogue operators are so keen to push professionals aside. It is why devaluing and corrupting professionalism is a profound danger to a democracy.

That is always true, but it is especially true when the president of the United States is someone who batters every norm of professional government. The ethos of such a president is in every way the opposite of professionalism: He makes the rules. Integrity means service to him. As Trump himself put it, "I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president." Such a figure will not only be enraged but also bewildered when a professional says, "you can't do that." His retort will be, "try to stop me." And without the barriers to caprice and corruption that professionals provide, "stopping him" becomes a great deal harder. An important example is from politics, where the assault on professionalism has had baleful results.


In his classic 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, political scientist James Q. Wilson described technocratic reformers' assault on Democratic Party political machines in three cities. The machines, Wilson noticed, were run by political professionals — committeemen, ward heelers, and the like. But these men were usually drawn from the non-professional classes: They worked their way up through the ranks of the party apparatus; they viewed politics as a trade and tended to be in it for the long term; they sought extrinsic rewards like jobs, pork-barrel spending, and promotions for themselves and their loyalists. As Wilson wrote, their rewards were "power, income, status, or the fun of the game."

Wilson watched with misgivings as what he called "political amateurs" attacked and ultimately demolished the machines. By "amateurs," he meant people who usually came from the elite educated classes and whose commitments were ideological and idealistic. They viewed politics as a hobby or a crusade, and they tended to have other day jobs. "An amateur is one who finds politics intrinsically interesting because it expresses a conception of the public interest," he wrote. "[T]he amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action." For amateurs, "compromise" is a dirty word; every issue should be settled purely on its merits. Transactional politics — the politics of bargaining and negotiating — is thus inherently distasteful to the political amateur, who views "each battle as a ‘crisis,'...each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause."

Amateurism plays an important role in politics, of course, but it presents hazards as well. Because amateurs organize their political activities around issues, they will, if necessary, manufacture issues, and even manufacture crises, to build solidarity and advance their cause. Polarization and hyper-partisanship are often in their interest. Whereas professionals tend to stick around year in and year out, amateurs tend to be fitful arrivistes and self-promoters, people like the Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, or Republican candidates Herman Cain and Donald Trump. George Washington Plunkitt, the so-called "sage of Tammany Hall" and a great (and colorful) proponent of transactional politics, famously loathed progressive reformers, referring to them as "mornin' glories" who "looked lovely in the mornin' and withered up in a short time," disappearing and disapproving when the hard work of governing needed to be accomplished.

Plunkitt understood himself and other Tammany hacks not as elites, but as anti-elites. And it was true; the machine was famous for welcoming working-class and lower-class immigrants at the docks, showing them how to participate in politics (and, of course, whom to vote for), and promoting the most loyal and capable up through the hierarchy. As political scholar Amy Bridges has written, "machine politics must be judged a veritable school of politics for working-class and minority voters," who often fared better in machine-run cities than under the meritocratic regimes of high-minded reformers. In fact, the early-20th-century progressives loathed Tammany precisely because it empowered the unwashed, especially the despised Irish. They proposed reforms that reduced participation and favored the educated, and even tried to disenfranchise working-class voters — with the support of the New York Times, business interests, and Theodore Roosevelt.

A return to the likes of Tammany Hall today would not be possible even if it were desirable. Still, we need to remember what political machines and parties did well in their institutional heyday: They recruited, shaped, tested, and promoted political aspirants, and they assembled the coalitions necessary for governing. They were forms, ensuring that most politicians — even corrupt ones — understood their coalitions, knew something about governing, and had the connections and the loyalty to work well with others. Today, by contrast, the parties are more like platforms, which political aspirants and outside groups exploit for self-promotion.

The consequences of that change have been far reaching. Until about 10 years ago, it was taken for granted in American politics that party professionals would have an important, and often decisive, influence on who reached the party's ballot for president, Congress, and other leading offices. That influence was exerted initially through party control of nominations and later through what was called the invisible primary, in which party insiders directed endorsements, money, and media coverage toward preferred candidates.

In 2016, by contrast, professionals in the Democratic Party barely managed to prevent a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Democrat from seizing the party's nomination. Professionals in the Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by helplessly as a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Republican successfully seized the nomination and took over their party. Four years later, Democratic Party professionals were powerless to stop a billionaire dilettante from buying his way onto a debate stage, where he was joined by a celebrity lifestyle guru and a publicity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneur — none of whom had experience in governing. Only by the skin of their teeth did party regulars, with an assist from the African American voters of South Carolina, manage to nominate a mainstream Democratic candidate against a socialist insurgent.

The parties, or at least the Democrats, have recently sought to reclaim some influence — by exerting more control over who can appear in presidential debates, for example. But they are up against the fact that, in many circles, "political professional" has become a term of abuse. To most of the public, amateurism is a mark of authenticity, while professionalism is a mark of corruption. That is a hazardous notion. Without professional input, the primary system is easily manipulated by factional, self-promoting, and even sociopathic candidates equipped with personal wealth or celebrity or demagogic skill — or, in Trump's case, all three.

The point is not that amateurs should stay out of politics and leave it to their betters. Not at all. The point, rather, is that professionals and voters, like air-traffic controllers and airline passengers, have different roles to play, and both roles are essential. Pushing aside party professionals and assuming that increased participation will solve every problem is like coping with airport gridlock by firing the controllers while packing the planes with more people.

The Brookings Institution's Elaine Kamarck, University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Ray La Raja, and I have suggested changes that would re-empower professionals in politics. But leaving these specific ideas to one side, the overarching lesson to remember is that the Constitution was the brainchild of political professionals, and it entrusted most governmental decision-making to political professionals. The democratization of politics since then was for many years a positive development — until it reached the point of turning professionals into spectators relegated to observing their own parties from the sidelines.

Plunkitt and Wilson would be sad, though not surprised, to have been proven right. In 1962, Wilson issued this warning about the "amateurization" of politics:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one's party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party's ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

The chaotic results of political amateurism were predictable, and predicted. The American political system is designed to combine professional and popular elements; it will not work without both.


Another example of the devaluation of professionalism, and of its unhappy consequences, cuts to the heart of our constitutional order: the transformation of the Constitution's premier institution, the U.S. Congress.

During the mid-1980s, I cut my teeth covering congressional budgeting. I got to know staff directors and economists and analysts at places like the budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. From the directors at the top to the junior analysts at the bottom, they considered themselves professionals. And they were all tasked with different versions of the same job: providing the information and expertise to keep Congress within the bounds of reality and the law.

I was especially fascinated and impressed by the professional culture of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee — much more powerful in those days than it is now — was run non-transparently by then-chairman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who had been in Congress since before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost as influential was the so-called College of Cardinals — the 12 powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen (yes, all men). Whitten was famous for knowing and exploiting every nook and cranny of appropriations law, but always quietly, behind the scenes. "Keep quiet while you're working," he said in a rare interview he granted me in 1986. "Up here, if you talk about it, you can't do it. You build up all the opposition." He bragged of never having held a press conference.

Indispensable to Whitten's wiles was the committee staff, a clique of secretive professionals who had done the work of appropriating for years, often decades. The appropriators and their staff were not always fair or transparent, but they passed the annual spending bills on time every year, because that was their job. They were expert at knowing what the members and leadership needed, brokering the necessary deals and somehow fitting everything into the budget (give or take a few supplemental appropriations). Though they were more monkish than most in Congress, they typified the professional culture that prevailed on Capitol Hill.

Then a couple of things happened. First, when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they and their Senate counterparts took an axe to Congress's professional and support staffs, reducing House staff by a third and Senate staff by 16%. They also abolished Congress's internal technology think tank. They and their successors in both parties stripped committee-based professionals like Whitten of much of their discretion, shifting power to leaders who imposed decisions from above. Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly called it Congress's "Big Lobotomy." The result was a reduction of professional capacity and intellectual capital within the legislative branch.

Second, the nature of the job changed. Candidates and voters began to see Congress less as a workshop where lawmakers painstakingly craft and pass laws, and more as a platform on which they can raise their profiles and polish their personal brands. As Levin writes, "[s]imply put, many members of Congress have come to understand themselves most fundamentally as players in a larger cultural ecosystem, the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience." Members, he continues, "do not become socialized to work together. They act like outsiders commenting on Congress, rather than like insiders participating in it."

As a result, a whole generation of people within and outside of Congress have no experience of the institution operating as a functional, professional legislative body. They know little about the exacting processes of drafting legislation, building coalitions, amassing political capital, or trading political favors — jobs that the Constitution expects Congress to do, jobs that no other institution of government can do. The predictable result has been to cripple Congress as a legislative entity and, in turn, to distort and disrupt the entire constitutional order.

In our constitutional system, Congress speaks by legislating. It can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and pass the odd non-binding resolution, but those activities are sideshows. If it fails to pass laws, it is effectively silent. With Congress derelict, power and decision-making flow to the executive, the courts, and the administrative agencies, none of which can match Congress's legitimacy and representative nature.

A recovery of the system would involve rebuilding the legislative branch's legislative professionalism — its culture as a place where people view their job as crafting law, where they know how to do their job, and where they aspire to do it well. Much ink has been spilled suggesting how we might accomplish this — by an American Political Science Association task force, by Congress's own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and by the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Kosar in these pages, among others. The harder question is whether Congress itself has the will to re-professionalize in our populist era.


Harder still, yet perhaps even more crucial, will be rebuilding public respect for professionalism in politics and in government. That would mean, for example, making a term like "career politician" or "bureaucrat" less of a dirty word and making "inexperienced" and "amateur" less synonymous with "authentic" and "uncorrupt."

The road ahead is long, and the gradient is steep. But the first steps can involve reminding ourselves to think twice before indulging the knee-jerk populism that denigrates professionals as obstacles to democratic politics. It will also help to remember that denuding professionalism is easy, whereas building and sustaining it is difficult.

And it will help to keep in mind that the war on professionalism leads to chaos, corruption, and predation — what White House counsel McGahn so aptly described as "crazy shit," and what, in recent years, we have seen far too much of.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at a symposium of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, on February 6, 2020.


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