America’s response to the Covid pandemic has shown that two popular models for public leadership—the governing novice who relies on ideology or “common sense” and the brainy technical expert who “follows the science”—can come up short in moments of crisis. But it’s hard to let go of either model. The first appeals to our ideal of the citizen-statesman, the talented everyday American who temporarily steps up to serve in public office. The second appeals to our vision of the brilliant specialist who uses brains and reason to reach the proper, apolitical answer.
But real-world governing in a diverse, continental republic seldom has easy answers. Too many differences exist among us, too many unknowns, and too many competing priorities to solve public problems simply by gut or formula. Understanding how government functions isn’t a matter of untutored intuition.
Another way exists. The concept of “practical wisdom”—knowledge gained through repeated engagement in a particular undertaking—dates back millennia. By working through a task repeatedly, you learn its root causes, the different forms it can take, and the various ways of tackling it. Though you develop an understanding of general rules, you also learn what specifics to look for and how to react. Your thinking shifts from abstract to concrete. You develop skills for addressing the conditions at hand.
To the untrained eye, your actions might appear slapdash. But high-level improvisation—in the kitchen, on the field, in a band—doesn’t mean doing whatever, whenever. It means responding based on understanding rooted in on-the-job experience. The ancient Greek term “phronesis” captures the idea—knowing the circumstances, the desired outcome, and the proper means to that end.
There is practical wisdom in statecraft, too.
Every president prior to Donald Trump either had governing experience or was an American Army general. Given this hole in Trump’s résumé, I had hoped that he would complement himself by filling senior positions with leaders possessing substantial governing experience. I was under no illusions that America is best ruled by insulated federal mandarins. Prior to Trump’s election, I had written about the recent failings of governing elites—I called it the “Decade of Mistakes by Experts.” We had intelligence failures, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, Obamacare, the disappearing Syrian red line, and more. But identifying and criticizing bureaucratic blunders is one thing; it is another to undermine the value of practical experience in public leadership.
In February 2017, I coauthored a study of the cabinet officials Trump selected to lead domestic-policy agencies. We found that they had considerably less governing experience than their recent predecessors; in fact, six had zero governing experience. Most striking, the entire group had never governed locally and had no experience in what we call “policy-implementation” roles. The hiring of governing-lite individuals, including Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner for senior non-Cabinet positions mirrored our findings.
My worry was that Trump was building a team that would know too little about how government works and influences citizens’ lives. Though several experienced leaders, including Alex Azar and Eugene Scalia, did eventually join the administration, others, like John Bolton, joined and swiftly departed. Moreover, the continuous churn in the administration’s highest ranks thwarted officials’ earning much on-the-job experience. A Brookings study found that, as of September 2020, the Trump administration had more turnover in its cabinet and senior staff than the five previous administrations. Moreover, 39 percent of the most senior staff positions have had “serial turnover.” This was a red flag.
It’s not possible to possess all the skills necessary singlehandedly to solve a once-in-a-century pandemic and all of its associated consequences. But a team of highly effective governing leaders should have the capacity to guide a public response. No one possesses comprehensive expertise in epidemiology, labor economics, education administration, supply-chain management, and urban policing, but leaders ought to know what questions to ask, what authorities to consult, and what tasks to delegate. They also ought to exhibit certain traits: honesty, seriousness, steadiness, deliberateness, optimism, and resolve.
No one is born with this kind of knowledge of government functioning, and few instinctively develop these traits. Such things aren’t discovered by studying philosophy or econometrics. They aren’t found in textbooks or podcasts. They are learned by doing: by knocking on doors, moderating public meetings, participating in task forces, engaging in legislative debates, drafting bills and regulations, directing public resources, getting hammered by the media, building coalitions, negotiating, compromising, taking tough votes, and being responsible for decisions that will affect others’ lives. Plenty of people know about government. That’s not the same thing as knowing how to govern.
The knowledge and skill associated with practical wisdom are different than that acquired by practicing the same piece of music 1,000 times prior to a recital. Perfecting the solo from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” will wow the crowd, but it won’t enable you to improvise over a jazz standard. Practical wisdom in statecraft doesn’t give you a checklist; it gives you general knowledge, insights, and habits. It shapes your temperament. So while you were shepherding legislation through a grueling process, leading a state’s recovery from a hurricane, or implementing a massive cross-agency initiative, you were also developing the acumen for responding to a school shooting, a series of bank failures, or a public-health crisis.
In at least three ways, this year has shown the costs of undervaluing practical wisdom.
Consider K-12 education. By early summer, America’s attention should’ve turned to practical questions of how schools might reopen. But much of the discussion focused on more abstract matters, such as what closures meant for equity or how online learning would transform schooling. These conversations were removed from the issues that practitioners were grappling with. As Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute noted in a recent report, “In the lead-up to a new school year, there have been no shortages of opinions in the media and on Twitter about how schools should reopen. Overwhelmingly, these opinions come from those with neither the responsibility nor the authority to reopen schools.” Indeed, President Trump, the CDC, the secretary of education, the American Pediatric Association (which later changed its statement), leading editorial boards, and others offered their views. In fact, outside advice ranged from passionate claims that opening schools was dangerous to passionate claims that not reopening schools was doing immeasurable harm to students.
But those with direct schooling responsibilities had to consider and balance a whole host of factors, including local incident rates, the age and health of their workforces, school transmission rates, and potential learning losses. They had to make decisions about matters like bus capacity, lunchroom protocols, cleaning materials, Internet access, ventilation, collective-bargaining agreements, health-department guidance, budgetary constraints, parental desires, school-board policies, and much more.
As such, when viewed nationwide, the practitioners in charge of school systems mostly behaved prudently. You might not know this based on the commentary, but at the start of the school year, about half of school districts were opening full-time and in-person. Rural areas, where the pandemic’s effects were generally less acute, returned, understandably, to face-to-face instruction more quickly. Appreciating that a majority of parents had questions about the safety of in-person schooling, practitioners moved gradually. Even though a growing body of research now suggests schools won’t act as “super-spreaders,” a recent survey showed more parents still—at least for the time being—prioritize improving online instruction above returning to face-to-face schooling. Parents are demonstrating practical wisdom—showing some skepticism about experts’ claims and applying their own judgment to tough decisions.
Many schools are incrementally returning to in-person instruction this fall, and, barring a mass resurgence of the virus, a substantial majority of students could be back in their classrooms some or all of the time this spring. If those experienced in school administration had been leading the last six months of school conversations—instead of dealing with the certain, absolute admonitions of those unseasoned in school leadership—we would have turned our attention to the most important operational questions sooner. And that, almost certainly, would have led to swifter, wiser decision-making.
This year we also undervalued practical wisdom by relying too heavily on public-health experts, who possessed valuable but narrow knowledge. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a household name thanks to his prominent public role. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, wasn’t far behind. But most Americans would struggle to name, for instance, the secretary of Commerce, the secretary of Labor, or the head of the Small Business Administration—officials whose departments are central to responding to the pandemic. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that such figures, including major private-sector employers, didn’t have a central role from the start.
This is not an argument against “following the science” but for recognizing that public-health leaders were just among several groups that should have shaped our understanding of the crisis and plans to recover. We needed experienced public servants to see the broader picture and put the advice of public-health officials in context. As M. Anthony Mills recently wrote, we should not immediately accept an expert’s view as dispositive, even if he has unusual knowledge or skills. A good mechanic can assess your engine, but he doesn’t know your salary, family budget, or plans for the car. Making use of a particular expert’s judgment doesn’t mean that the person with ultimate responsibility can’t use his own judgment as well in evaluating the advice.
It was inevitable that the public-health community would make some mistakes. Early on, public-health officials were unable adequately to track cases, accurately report infections and deaths, or ensure a sufficient supply of tests. They did an about-face on the need for the public to use masks. The WHO initially underestimated the virus’s risks and erred on the risks of human-to-human transmission. In New York, a health-department directive may have contributed to a spike in nursing-home deaths. Moreover, public-health policies designed to stop the spread of Covid-19 paid too little attention to the influence on citizens’ lives of a cratered economy and social isolation.
Countless public-health officials also ventured into politics, supporting social-justice demonstrations while opposing anti-lockdown protests—after strenuously advising all citizens to avoid public spaces. Extending their advocacy beyond their area of specialization further eroded the public’s trust. As philosopher Jennifer Frey has noted, questions about justice, institutions, and civil disobedience are “well outside the sphere of epidemiological expertise.” Citing a letter signed by numerous public health officials, Frey observed that support for one type of protest over another “amounts to public health experts weighing in, as health experts, on the political questions of who gets to exercise their free-speech rights during a pandemic and why.” As physician and professor Sally Satel argued, “it is not the job of public-health experts to resolve risk tradeoffs based on their passions and social values.”
As time passes, we will better understand why some technical experts were given so much authority over a crisis with so many dimensions. Perhaps the combination of the administration’s unsteady response and the view of most Americans that the president is not “honest and trustworthy” created a vacuum of trust that public-health officials filled. Perhaps the first technical experts we turn to in a crisis will always have outsize influence. Perhaps citizens decided that public-health officials were likeliest to have the best answers to their primary concern: how do I protect myself from infection? Whatever the reason, their specialized knowledge was no substitute for practical wisdom.
Finally, from the start of the crisis to today, President Trump has demonstrated a lack of practical wisdom by failing to appreciate the head-of-state or head-of-government responsibilities of his office. It matters how you talk about your fellow citizens, how you inform them, and the example you set. It matters how you activate, coordinate, and support the executive branch bodies under your authority.
Trump said that the virus would just disappear; that in 99 percent of cases, it’s totally harmless; that the U.S. had an unmatched testing capacity; and that we had the world’s lowest fatality rate. He held an indoor rally in Tulsa in June and called testing “overrated.” He said Covid “affects virtually no one” as America marked 200,000 deaths. And of course, Trump eventually contracted the virus himself.
We can’t know how Trump and his senior aides would have performed if they had more governing experience. But it is hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been more careful.
Practical wisdom in statecraft will never inspire like the novice’s theatrical displays and dramatic expressions. The governing amateur, not knowing what he doesn’t know, will gladly offer exaggerated assessments and imprudent plans. Likewise, the technical expert can astound with subject-matter erudition. The practically wise public leader, on the other hand, will typically be moderate in disposition, measured in speech, and incremental in action. Not exactly the stuff of a tent revival.
But effective governing, especially during times of danger, requires more than enthusiasm and intellect. It requires knowing how to set goals, plan, encourage, mobilize, listen, adjust, convene, accommodate, compromise, and persist. In the toughest times, it also requires what’s known as the Stockdale Paradox, remaining focused on the task at hand and instilling confidence in others by being forthright about the direness of your situation while remaining convinced that you will ultimately prevail.
Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were probably born with special gifts. But by the time Lincoln asked battle-weary Americans in his Second Inaugural address to demonstrate firmness and charity, to defeat the Confederacy and bind up the nation’s wounds, he had been a state legislator and congressman, and had led the nation through several years of the Civil War. By the time FDR rallied Americans after Pearl Harbor, he had been a state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy, New York governor, and president during the Great Depression. By the time Churchill told his people they would fight to the end, he had been president of the Board of Trade, home secretary, first lord of the Admiralty, secretary of state for war, chancellor of the exchequer, and a member of the House of Commons for nearly 40 years.
Practical wisdom in statecraft doesn’t turn everyone into a Lincoln, FDR, or Churchill. But it does provide invaluable knowledge and skills, especially in tumultuous times. In the Covid era, it’s been in too-short supply.
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images