Luther Alumni Magazine

Educated Opinions: Luther faculty on current events and issues

What are the pros and cons of being a candidate without political experience?

As the presidential primary season heated up last fall, the two Republican Party candidates topping the polls were Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom had previous political experience. Carly Hayden Foster, associate professor of political science, says that while their inexperience seems like a good thing to a lot of Republican primary voters, it could hurt them in the general election.

Carly Hayden Foster
Carly Hayden Foster


Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has espoused an ideology focused on making government smaller. It makes sense, Foster says, that voters who view government negatively would support candidates without government experience. “They’re not going to want someone who’s tainted by the experience of maybe being pushed into a compromise or accomplishing legislative goals if their ideology is that government should be doing less,” Foster says. “For them, being successful in government doesn’t translate to a positive thing.”

Only three people have been elected president without previous electoral experience, and they were all war generals.

People who vote in the primaries tend to be more ideologically focused, more ideologically committed to their party, Foster says, and choose candidates that align best with their own thinking. “But that set of voters is very different from the set that shows up in the general election,” she says. That is when more moderate voters turn out. Democrats and Republicans who are maybe not committed enough to spend an evening caucusing, or who haven’t decided whom they support by primary time, are the ones who might be concerned about a candidate’s lack of experience during the general election.

Historically, government experience has been viewed as positive. Only three people have been elected president without previous electoral experience, and they were all war generals—Zachary A. Taylor in 1849, Ulysses S. Grant in 1969, and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. And Eisenhower was notoriously unhappy in the job, Foster says. “As a general, you can tell people to do things and they will figure out ways to do it, but as a president that’s not how it happens. The president’s job, constitutionally speaking, is to faithfully execute the laws that are passed by Congress.”

Another potential disadvantage for inexperienced candidates, if they’re popular among people who dislike government, is the challenge of getting their supporters to participate in the political process of voting. Supporters may say in polling that they like an inexperienced candidate, but getting them to actually participate in the governmental process and vote for that person is tough—especially when a candidate’s overall message is that government is bad. “It makes people want to disengage,” Foster says. “Especially in a potentially close election season, voter turnout is a huge factor in who will win.”

—Ellen Modersohn


How do shortcomings in water policy affect the environment in the Southwest?

Eric Baack
Eric Baack

A major problem in the Southwest, says Eric Baack, associate professor of biology, is that while it has elaborate legal framework regulating surface water, its laws governing groundwater were written in the 1800s. So there’s a big gap between water laws and the ways in which we now know water supplies operate.

Baack points to the case of a river drying up as the most dramatic example of law falling short of reality. “In most places, if you were to divert a river, causing it to dry up, it would be illegal,” Baack says. “But in the Southwest, in many cases you don’t even need a permit to pump water for household wells, which lower the water table and can also cause a river to dry up.” While developers in Arizona must demonstrate a sustainable groundwater supply when building a subdivision, Baack says, no such requirement exists if a house is built on its own. And so the impact in some cases is cumulative, lowering the water table one household at a time.

Water policy surrounding big agriculture also lags behind the science. As drought in California persists, some farmers have turned to pumping well water for irrigation, which, again, depletes the water table. And as groundwater declines, sediments begin to collapse—and so do roads, canals, and pipelines.

Sound policy may require the Southwest to divert water away from both farms and cities.

Many farmers in the Southwest use flood irrigation, which floods a field, leaving the irrigation water to flow off the field and into a drain. And, says Baack, “Many irrigation canals have been simple ditches with no lining to prevent water from seeping into the desert soil. ”

In the desert cities of San Diego and Los Angeles, Californians have started purchasing water use from surrounding agricultural interests. In return, they are funding measures to make nearby farms more efficient—for example, by lining their canals with cement or by helping them transition to drip irrigation.

But as agricultural use of water becomes more efficient, some natural areas will feel it keenly. Less water will drain from fields to areas like the Salton Sea, an important stopping place for migratory birds.  It will become saltier and begin to dry up.  Winds will spread pesticide-laden dust from its dry lakebed into the air.

“Sound policy,” Baack says, “may require the Southwest to divert water away from both farms and cities. And lasting change requires us to recognize that groundwater and surface water are intimately connected.” 

—Kate Frentzel

What are the consequences of the U.S. and Cuba renewing diplomatic relations?

Immediate material consequences are few, but it has great symbolic significance, says Alfredo Alonso Estenoz, a native of Cuba and associate professor of Spanish at Luther. “The world took notice of the announcement in July, but now the press barely talks about it, and we can read that as an indication that it’s part of a process that everybody was expecting,” he says.

Alfredo Alonso Estenoz
Alfredo Alonso Estenoz


Americans can now travel to Cuba more easily. They don’t need to apply for a license from the State Department, but they still need a non-tourist reason for visiting, whether it’s academic, religious, cultural, professional, or humanitarian. But the associated licenses can now be obtained through travel agencies and even airlines.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations will have more impact for Cubans, Alonso Estenoz says. “One problem in Cuba right now is that there’s not enough infrastructure to receive the potential influx of tourists,” he says. “For a long time, Cuba has had parts of the country that are ‘for tourists.’ So when groups from the U.S. travel to Cuba—for example, for academic, scientific, or medical conferences—they usually have a very tight schedule, and the government steers them only to the places they want them to see. If there is more tourism, that has to change.”

Cubans have lived for more than 50 years with free healthcare and free education. Will that be possible to maintain if there is widespread change in Cuba?

While the U.S. still maintains an economic embargo against Cuba, the change in diplomatic relations signals that it may be coming to end. “The embargo has had a real impact on the Cuban economy,” Alonso Estenoz says, “but it has also been the main excuse for certain things the Cuban government has not been able to provide, like foodstuffs, medicines, and other basic consumer goods. These things were covered in a way when the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc existed and traded with Cuba, but there was a real crisis when they folded, which showed that Cuba had not built an economy that supported itself and provided basic needs.”

Alonso Estenoz thinks that the changes afoot offer real opportunity for Cuba, which, as a communist country, has maintained strict economic and political control over its citizens. “If the Cuban government is smart, they will be open to foreign investment but will control that investment,” he says. “For example, Cubans have lived for more than 50 years with free healthcare and free education. Will that be possible to maintain if there is widespread change in Cuba?” he asks. “It’s important that Cuba maintains what it has built in terms of a national culture—music, sports, education, healthcare, etcetera—and at the same time transitions to free elections and a different economic model.”

—Kate Frentzel