01/12/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Meritocracy in Democracy

For many Americans, Obama's administration has been a disappointment because the change he promised fell short of the high expectations of him when he won the 2008 election. Unfortunately, many also now feel that a Republican candidate won't change matters either. Poll numbers repeatedly show that politicians have record low approval ratings. This lack of public confidence in the system to produce respectable politicians who will do the right thing results from a number of factors, but one glaring reason is that an increasing number of people recognize that modern democracy no longer reflects one person one vote, but rather one dollar one vote. Various attempts at campaign reform by eliminating money from the political process have only succeeded in doing the opposite. Campaign money during the election of 2008 hit all-time highs. Another way to address the issue, though, is to require additional qualifications so that money access alone doesn't dictate who wins and who loses.

Taking a page out of China's leadership selection process, the U.S. can introduce the idea of earned authority as a requirement for running for office. China's leaders must go through decades of serving their country in a variety of roles before they can ascend to the top positions because the Chinese believe that the privilege of running a country should only go to people who have proven their ability to help their country. Picking the best leaders and policymakers for our nation, likewise, should also be a high priority for citizens in a democracy. Getting the right leaders in place would obviously be in the best interest of not only to the U.S., but for the entire world. However, finding these leaders has been challenging, and vetting them has been extremely imperfect. Aside from reaching a certain age and being born in the country, anyone can run to be president of the United States while just about anyone can run for other public offices. While this sounds democratic, it may actually have the reverse effect since running an enlightened country requires enlightened individuals in charge. The rule of law, something we pride ourselves in having, is only an extension of politics. The rule of law is unable to protect citizens if unscrupulous lawmakers pass laws that only benefit themselves rather than society at large. Thus, a democracy is only as good as its leaders.

In order to recruit more individuals who would have the greater interest at heart and have the commensurate ability and experience to carry them out, western democracies could require a demonstrated track record of selfless service to society along with passing competency exams. This is not such a stretch given that many other professions also require meeting a minimum set of standards before practicing. Lawyers take bar exams; doctors need to pass medical boards; architects must pass tests to be licensed. It really isn't so crazy that we ask politicians who run for office to have a basic knowledge of history, science, economics, and politics and also prove that community service is part of their DNA.

To be sure, opponents to such additional requirements would cite that the current debates aired on television and the rigorous campaigning would separate the wheat from the chaff. The millions of blogs on the Internet should also vet politicians effectively. The assumption is that anyone who survives so much scrutiny by the media would certainly be competent and well-intentioned enough to run a country.

Truly, the media scrutiny is welcomed and good, but unfortunately not sufficient. Many seasoned politicians receive significant media training before they go on air. They are well-trained to dodge tough questions and provide sound-bite answers that may be pleasing to the ears. However, their glib words don't necessarily translate into comparable leadership experience to get things done. Good campaigning and debating skills are greater testaments to one's ability to sell to the public, but doesn't necessarily translate into effective implementation of long range goals. Finally, with billions of blogs on the Internet, it is at times even more difficult for people to determine whether the blogger is legitimate and telling the truth than it is to vet the political candidates themselves.

By having a more standard screening process that selects for qualities such as a moral compass as well as an ability and necessary knowledge to get things done, citizens can try to exercise more quality control over the people who attain a great deal of power in government. Obviously, no process is fail safe, but it certainly is worth trying out, especially since it has helped another large country such as China go from a backwater nation to the second largest in the world. If the democratic system can be improved to attract more people who demonstrate the type of qualities that citizens desire in public officials, then there is a greater chance of restoring the kind of democracy that this form of government was originally intended to do.