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Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts

Political Amateurs in the United States Congress

The U.S. Congress is typically seen as an institution filled with career politicians who have been seasoned by experience in lower levels of political office. In fact, political amateurs have comprised roughly one quarter of the House of Representatives since 1930. The effect of amateurs’ inexperience on their political careers, roles in Congress, and impact on the political system has never been analyzed in detail.

Written in a lucid style accessible to the nonspecialist, David T. Canon’s Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts is a definitive study of political amateurs in elections and in Congress. Canon examines the political conditions that prompt amateurs to run for office, why they win or lose, and whether elected amateurs behave differently from their experienced counterparts. Challenging previous work which presumed stable career structures and progressively ambitious candidates, his study reveals that amateurs are disproportionately elected in periods of high political opportunity, such as the 1930s for Democrats and 1980s for Republicans.

Canon’s detailed findings call for significant revision of our prevailing understanding of ambition theory and disarm monolithic interpretations of political amateurs. His unique typology of amateurism differentiates among policy-oriented, "hopeless," or ambitious amateurs. The latter resemble their professional counterparts; "hopeless" amateurs are swept into office by strong partisan motivations and decision-making styles of each type vary, affecting their degree of success, but each type of amateur provides a necessary electoral balance by defeating entrenched incumbents rarely challenged by more experienced politicians.

196 pages | 5 figures, 13 tables | 6.00 x 9.00 | © 1990

American Politics and Political Economy Series

Political Science: American Government and Politics

Table of Contents

1. Theory: When Amateurs Appear
Amateurism: A Definition and Its Political Implications
The Career Structure
Determinants of the Career Structure: Why Amateurs Are Elected
2. Theory: What Amateurs Do
The Existing Theoretical Arguments
A Theory of Amateurism
3. Changes in Political Career Structures
The Conventional Wisdom: Political Career Paths and Change in the Opportunity Structure
The Dynamics of Career Structures
Charting Changes in the Congressional Career Structure
Explaining Change in the Congressional Career Structure
4. Political Experience and Elections
Political Experience in Primary Elections
Political Experience in Congressional Elections
Experienced Challengers and Election Outcomes
5. Amateurs in Congress
Member Goals and Political Behavior
The Legislative Career in the House and Senate
Behavior in the House and Senate
6. Conclusions and Consequences
Theoretical Developments
Amateurs in the Political System
Appendix A: Coding Prior Political Experience
Appendix B: Probit Analysis of Political Experience in Congressional Elections

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