Beginning in primary school, American students learn about the inclusive nature of democracy, which promises that regardless of sex, creed, or religion, any United States citizen can become President. But how true is this teaching? Let us concede for the moment that an individual meets all the legal requirements to seek the nation’s top office. What are the other factors that allow citizens to attain the presidency? Utilizing the 18 presidents elected during the 20th and 21st centuries as guidelines, each one shared common characteristics in the areas of gender, education, college affiliation, political party, and government service. So, could the average American realistically become President of the United States? Here are five reasons that you will never sit in the Oval Office’s big chair:
1. Political Party
Though touted as inclusive, American democracy only offers the voter two party choices – Democratic or Republican. While many political parties vie for presidential power, only these two parties have successfully run candidates that reached the White House during the period under review, with 10 for the Republican Party and 8 for the Democratic Party. This means that until a different party usurps power from these two groups, the candidate must be either a Republican or Democrat, or there is zero chance of winning.
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During the 2008 presidential race, much was made of Sarah Palin’s insertion onto the Republican ticket as Vice-presidential candidate. She joined Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic Vice-presidential candidate, as the only two females ever to reach that level for the two major parties. Sadly, the data on our list of candidates reveals that the presidency remains in the male dominion. Hillary Clinton presents a strong viable 2016 candidate for the Democratic Party, and she may well break the cycle for women. However, until a woman gains the presidency, the data reveal that being female means exclusion.
Primary school attendance is required in the United States unless parents opt to provide their own form of schooling, and all of the last 18 presidents graduated from high school. College, however, is an expensive investment, and tuition continues to climb at an alarming rate. On our list of presidents, only Harry Truman did not attend college and graduate. According to the data, a successful candidate possesses a high school diploma, at minimum, and without a college diploma, the chance of success drops to only 5%.
4. College Affiliation
The number of higher education institutions in the United States is vast, but a fraction of them hold the distinctions of providing alumni with both degree and pedigree. US News and World Report lists the top National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges in America each year, five universities consistently jostle for the top spots: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia Universities. On our list of presidents, fourteen graduated from a school ranked in the top 20 of US News’s list, with Harvard and Yale Universities dominating the other three schools. This means that 78% of the presidents elected in the 20th and 21st centuries graduated from a small sliver of the gargantuan number of colleges accessible to Americans. There is still hope for a candidate who attended a school outside the top twenty, as Warren Harding (Ohio Central College), Lyndon Johnson (Southwest Texas State Teachers College), and Ronald Reagan (Eureka College) attended colleges considered small by contemporary standards. However, a candidate taking this route achieves success 18% of the time only.
5. A Powerful Position at the State or Federal Level
Along with gender and education, holding a powerful political office at the state or federal level is a commonality shared by all eighteen presidents elected in the 20th and 21st centuries. The number one power position held prior to attaining the presidency is shared between two offices, with each providing six presidents. The only position at the state level from which presidents ascend is that of Governor, while at the federal level, Vice-presidential candidates are the clear favorites. US Senators occupy the next most popular spot with three presidents. The final three positions are one-offs from the federal level that include Secretary of War, Secretary of Commerce, and Supreme Military Commander. In short, the data reveal that the successful presidential must be a veteran of some form of government.
Based on the shared characteristics of our previous eighteen presidents, the average American stands a 5% to 22% chance of reaching the nation’s highest office provided the candidate campaigns from a power position at the state or federal level. American democracy’s most egregious omission is the absence of female representation at the presidential level. By the gender standards of the 20th and 21st century’s presidents, half of the American population is denied fair representation. Perhaps even more alarming is the hold on presidential power by a small sliver of higher-education institutions, and the social ideologies, many shared, that influence future leaders. Furthermore, the cost of an education at a top twenty school is $46,000 annually and economically unfeasible for the majority of Americans. So, the next time you hear someone say that any US citizen can become President of the United States, speak truth to the lie and set them straight.