But the most prominent example of the increasing irrelevance of direct experience in politics may be the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. This past November saw the election of Tea Party candidates like Kentucky’s Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, to the U.S. Senate. It helped Paul that he had a well-known name—his father, Ron Paul, is a congressman and former presidential candidate—and that his opponent ran a brutally negative campaign, which backfired by reminding voters of what they didn’t like about professional politicians. Another Tea Partyer, Ron Johnson, who had spent his entire career in the plastics-manufacturing business, defeated Russ Feingold (who had been representing Wisconsin in the Senate for nearly two decades) by telling voters, “I’m just a guy from Oshkosh” and “I’ve never been to Washington”—as if D.C. were some sort of infectious zone.
Then there’s Palin. When John McCain named her his running mate in the summer of 2008, she had spent 18 months governing a state with a population smaller than that of Columbus, Ohio. Before then, she was the mayor of tiny Wasilla. Her nomination robbed the McCain campaign of one of its strongest arguments against Barack Obama: his own lack of experience. And yet Palin, excoriated for her lack of knowledge and know-how, is now one of the country’s most prominent Republicans. Palin sometimes argues in speeches and interviews that instinct and character can carry a person through; she even presents inexperience as a sort of advantage. “Your résumé not being as fat as your opponent’s in a race, perhaps being able to capitalize on that . . . being able to use that in campaigns—I don’t have 30 years of political experience under my belt,” Palin told Time. “That’s a good thing, that’s a healthy thing.” Palin, of course, quit her job as governor of Alaska, giving up an opportunity to gain more executive experience in order to write a book and star in a reality-TV show. Still, even her Facebook posts make headlines, as they did in January after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson. It is unclear whether Palin will aim for the presidency in 2012—she says she hasn’t “closed the door”—and no one knows where she will end up next.
If she did win the top job in 2012, Palin would have something in common with another woman who ended up running a country after a dramatic and relatively late career change. In 1989, Angela Merkel was 35, divorced and working as a researcher at a university in East Germany; her specialty was quantum chemistry. Then the Berlin Wall came down. Merkel joined the protests against the East German regime and, once the two countries were reunified, was elected to the Bundestag. There she impressed Helmut Kohl, the chancellor, who unexpectedly named her cabinet minister for women and youth. Kohl’s nickname for her was das Mädchen, “the girl.”
Merkel could easily have topped out there, somewhere in the upper-middle tier. The party she and Kohl belonged to, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was run like an old boys’ club. Then Kohl and the party’s top leaders became enmeshed in a campaign-finance and influence-peddling scandal. Merkel, whom they had never completely admitted to their circle, wasn’t implicated. One of the few CDU leaders left standing, she took over. The party had been voted out, but six years later, in 2005, she led the Christian Democrats to victory and was re-elected in 2009. Being an outsider had saved her from being caught in a mess that could have destroyed her career.