Recently, I listened to an episode of the podcast Revisionist History (Malcolm Gladwell's podcast)* entitled "The Powerball Revolution." (I recommend listening to it; I'll end up summarizing it in this post.) The podcast's thesis is, essentially, that people are bad at predicting who will be an effective leader or not. This is because the skills involved in campaigning are distinct from the skills involved in governing; the more introverted, quiet leaders often are not given a chance to emerge.
The podcast talks about a school in Bolivia that selects its student government randomly. Any student who wants to be, say, student council president can decide to run. Then, one of them is selected at random, and that person becomes president. This system appeared to have many advantages over the standard democratic system–it created a group with more diversity of background, personality, and ideas, since candidates were not burdened with campaigning. In fact, when this method was used, the student council was able to accomplish more and worked more effectively.
The podcast talks about a school in Bolivia that selects its student government randomly.
The podcast also looked at grants for medical research, which are evaluated based on reviewers who score how promising the idea looks to be. Lo and behold, there is no correlation between the score of a proposal and its actual merit (measured by the number of future citations), when all is said and done. So, says Malcolm Gladwell, if even a national organization falls victim to this fallacy, maybe democracy isn't the way to go.
Now, I'm not totally sure whether the podcast was meant to imply that national elections for President of the United States should also be conducted randomly. But I couldn't resist trying to figure it out empirically. Because here in America, academics like to rate presidents historically. So I could just compare the historical rankings of each president with their popular vote margin in the election in which they were first elected. (I used Siena's 2018 ranking, which includes Donald Trump. Obviously this isn't a perfect metric of success, and there are disagreements aplenty about this, but I didn't really want to get into it all.)
The chart is below. I've labelled a few of the presidents for convenience.
There does seem to be a correlation! It's not super strong, but it's definitely there. Now, I should point out that George Washington is actually too low (he was elected unanimously for both of his terms), but I didn't want to stretch the graph out too much. Presidents James Monroe, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were also popular presidents who history has smiled upon. On the opposite end of the spectrum, James Buchanan received a plurality of the popular vote, but is often criticized for weak leadership prior to the Civil War.**
Looking at the overall trajectory of the graph, it's clear that more support from the voting public is somewhat related to how well a president does.
However, there are some counterexamples for sure. Abraham Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in much of the South, and was elected despite its strong opposition. However, he is often considered among the best presidents. Warren G. Harding, whose two-year presidency was marked almost entirely by affairs and other scandals, was elected with over 60% support.
Looking at the overall trajectory of the graph, it's clear that more support from the voting public is somewhat related to how well a president does. Does that mean it's causal? Maybe a prospering nation causes voters to be more united in their support of a certain party, which is also linked to that president being rated well. That seems fairly plausible to me.
But it could also be true that the democratic process means something, and people do have some ability to judge a potential leader. Maybe.
People do have some ability to judge a potential leader. Maybe.
Oh! Before you go. For fun, I did the same thing with prime ministers of the United Kingdom, except British elections are based on votes for the party and not the leader, and many prime ministers were not actually elected as such,*** so it's a bit weird. Also, there are more political parties. But here's the chart, and here's a link to the spreadsheet with the data, in the sake of full information:
*I can't mention Revisionist History and gloss over what is maybe my favorite podcast, period. It's absolutely captivating. Listen to the first five minutes and if you aren't hooked, you can give up. Basically, this is the mystery that I find so intriguing:
Art museums have a lot of art, and not all of it is display-worthy. Sometimes a museum will get donated a piece that simply isn't worth putting up. These pieces are generally kept in warehouses and many are seen by literally no one. I mean literally as in literally. Even the museum's curators hadn't looked at many of these. But when these museums go through budget cuts, they raise prices. Cut pay. Lay off staff.
But the art museums don't sell their garbage art sitting in warehouses that no one wants to look at.
But they don't sell their garbage art sitting in warehouses that everyone agrees is garbage and no one wants to look at, art that could be sold in exchange for money that they could even use to buy art people want to look at.
**Right next to Buchanan is Trump, the president immediately before Joe Biden. (Y'all in the future, Biden hasn't been elected yet as I'm writing this, but...you know.) I don't really think Trump should be ranked yet, since his presidency is still happening, so that's why he's in a footnote. If you look at these historical rankings, there has been a tendency for recent presidents to gravitate more towards the middle as they leave office. But unless he cleans up his act (or bribes historians) he's definitely a point in favor of elections.
***So were a few US presidents (mostly vice presidents who ascended to the presidency upon the president's death.) Sometimes, these people won reelection, in which case I used their percentage of the vote upon reelection. The rest are excluded. That's why James Buchanan, the worst-ranked commander-in-chief on the graph, is listed as #43: because #44, Andrew Johnson, was never elected president.