Why politics?

James Walter, Monash University

Jennifer L. Lawless Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012 (302 pp). ISBN 9-78052175-660-0 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Ashley Weinberg (ed.) The Psychology of Politicians, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012 (248 pp). ISBN 9-78052113-066-0 (paperback) RRP $44.95.

Think about this: have you ever considered a political career? If not, you are in the majority: most of us never seriously consider this option. In the United States, for instance, 95 per cent have never considered political candidacy and less than one per cent have ever run for elective office (Lawless 2012, p. 24). Have you taken a role in community organisations, been elected to a parents’ and teachers’ committee, or the like? Many more of us will have engaged in this way, but even there you may have noticed the relative reluctance of people to step up to the leadership role. Sometimes a leadership aspirant is clear (and most of us step aside); often however we have to join in persuading someone among us to act for the team and their nomination is rarely contested. It begins to seem that the appetite for influence and control may be the preserve of a minority.

What about the politics of the work-place? Here, the picture is more complicated. Contemporary society depends on bureaucratic organisation; escalation in one’s power over others is an inevitable part of the career trajectory; a taste for having a say in the way things are determined will be engendered; a few of us will be driven to improve upon what we regard as the inadequate performance of our superiors and become diverted into a management stream, though this may not have been our initial intention.

Even so, the decidedly unusual decision, it seems, is the decision to run for formal political office. Who takes this path, and why? What is the catalyst of political ambition? Are there characteristic patterns of socialisation, psychology, socio-economic formation or professional development that are the stimulus for politics? If only those with particular qualities embark on a political career, what might be the outcomes in terms of the performance of our political elites? These are questions of enduring significance not only for those who work directly with or for politicians, but for all of us, since the other unique quality of the political class is that it alone determines ‘who gets what, when, how’ (Lasswell 1958).

What is the catalyst of political ambition?

Political scientists have been cautious about taking up these questions. They are difficult questions to address with the quantitative empirical methods favoured by many in that profession. These are best utilised in exploring broad patterns of social behaviour, in voting studies, or attitude surveys, or public opinion, though they can be applied by a skilful practitioner to the prosopography of political elites, as Ian McAllister has shown in the Australian instance (McAllister 1992), or to candidate attitude surveys. Can such approaches be further refined in more comprehensive studies of the political class? And what are the prospects for complementary, fine grained, qualitative work on the groups and individuals at the top of the political tree?

A recent book by Jennifer Lawless, Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office, is thoughtful and methodologically ambitious in pursuing both of these questions in the US context. It is likely that what she finds will be mirrored in other Western polities. Lawless disarmingly confesses to having run for office herself, as a Democratic candidate for the US Congress (she lost). In part, then, this is self-exploration stimulated by the question she encountered along the way—why would a nice person like you want to go to Washington? But it is far more than that. Lawless surveys the existing literature on political ambition and identifies the gap: it focuses inordinately on rational choice approaches to political opportunity, to the detriment of those factors that prefigure political choice. In other words, some things that have nothing to do with political opportunities will have engendered political ambition before the question of the choice to run ever arises. Existing studies, based on those already immersed in electoral politics, can rarely address those precursor conditions, nor why, even among the five per cent prepared to consider a run, less than one per cent take the crucial step.

Lawless thus distinguishes between nascent political ambition (the germ of interest in seeking election) and expressive ambition (the actual choice to run), and the discrete circumstances of both. She then successfully tackles the challenge of combining rigorous quantitative methodology—two large scale comparative panel surveys (in 2001 and 2008) involving thousands of participants in what she persuasively establishes as the ‘candidate eligibility pool’—and qualitative research involving several hundred lengthy interviews with the carriers of both nascent and expressive ambition. She can, then, interweave illuminating personal stories of ambition fostered or curtailed and candidacy attempted with a broader sweep of rigorous survey research, and a temporal span revealing worrying signs of a decline in civic engagement. Able candidates are less inclined to translate nascent ambition into a political career as fiercer partisanship erodes political civility and the feasibility of reasoned solutions.

The book initially examines core factors that propel or suppress an interest in running for office. Lawless focuses first on the influence of personal, familial, professional and political factors on nascent ambition. Only by understanding the dynamics of these precursor factors in generating nascent ambition are we in a position to consider the next step, the decision to run and the importance at that point of political opportunity structures: party recruiting, mentors and local context (since some then find themselves stymied by holding, say, progressive views in a community or a period that has swung hard to the right). The combination of meticulous quantitative analysis of large panel findings and the narratives of subjects in her pool works beautifully. No other work so systematically and comprehensively traces the origins of political ambition and the circumstances that encourage (or deter) the decision to act upon it.

Certain professions are a more likely conduit into candidacy than others.

That some of what Lawless discovers is less than surprising does not detract either from the fact that she grounds (or disproves) hypotheses that others offer with less support, or from the richness of her account. A bald summary of what she concludes does less than justice to this fascinating book. She finds, as you’d expect, that there is a pronounced gender gap. Within the candidate eligibility pool, men are twice as likely as women to have seriously considered entering politics. Women of all races are particularly less likely to express interest in high level office. Regardless of party or profession women are less likely to be recruited to run for office and less likely to consider themselves qualified for it; in consequence women are less likely than men to emerge as candidates. Others, of course, have explored this terrain, for instance, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2001), but the empirical weight of her surveys and the first hand evidence of the gendered nature of institutional and party practices and of political expectations presented by Lawless’s subjects is striking. The picture for racial minorities is more complicated. Latino and African American men whose professional and socio-economic characteristics place them in the candidate eligibility pool are as likely as their white counterparts to report nascent ambition, while the gender gap persist across racial lines, but once professional circumstances and recruitment experiences are accounted for, black eligible candidates are statistically less likely than whites to consider running for office. The inference Lawless draws from qualitative analysis with black candidates is that precursor conditions for nascent ambition do not translate into action unless additional factors (professional proximity to political decision makers, active recruitment and mentoring) cut in.

Family dynamics are influential: those who grew up in a family where politics was a topic of interest, who were encouraged to consider politics a worthy aspiration, and especially where a family member has suggested running for office, are more likely to translate interest into action. Certain professions are a more likely conduit into candidacy than others. Careers that confer high levels of political proximity are a key: lawyers and social/political activists are significantly more likely to develop nascent ambition and to consider high level candidacy than are business leaders or educators. But as an eligible candidate’s income rises, the likelihood of considering a candidacy decreases. At the last, of course, recruitment from party leaders, elected officials and political activists is one of the most important predictors of whether a respondent considers a candidacy, regardless of party. But then the shifting sands of political context can have an impact: as political cynicism grows, the prospect of office becomes less appealing and the divisive political tumult in the seven years between Lawless’s surveys appears to have had just such an effect. Civic engagement has declined and ambition turns to private ends rather than public engagement.

Lawless, then, addresses important questions about early influence, professional socialisation, proximate careers, and gender and racial differences in generating political ambition, and the circumstances in which it translates to action. This is her primary contribution: others have revealed, for instance, the gender gap in political ambition, yet few show in such detail the precursor conditions that deliver that outcome. But is there an initial spur, a psychological catalyst that provides the ignition, before these other factors to come into play? Lawless briefly acknowledges the question by referring to Harold Lasswell’s description of the ‘political type … power seekers, searching out the power institutions of the society … and devoting themselves to the capture and use of government’ (Lasswell 1948, p. 20). She then sidesteps it, showing how rational choice approaches—positing political ambition as a strategic response to a political opportunity structure—shifted the agenda away from personal attributes, personalities and motivations. Her innovation is adroitly to identify problems with that dominant approach, showing that precursor factors are crucial and that the arrival at expressive ambition is much more fluid than recent theorists suggest. But she leaves the psychological question hanging.

Cognitive analysis is currently one of the leading concerns in political psychology.

Surely, for those of us seriously interested in politics, this is not a question that can so easily be put aside? If David Marr’s (2010) contentious essay on Kevin Rudd achieved nothing else, it raised the question of whether Rudd’s remarkable rise and fall could be explained without reference to his attributes, personality and motivation; that is, without reference to psychology. Now, pursuing this thought, one might turn to a number of comprehensive overviews of research in political psychology (Sears, Huddy & Jervis 2003; Jost & Sidanius 2004), even noting its development in Australia (Walter & ’t Hart 2009), but for purposes of this discussion, it is instructive to pair Lawless’ work with a contemporaneous book edited by Ashley Weinberg: The Psychology of Politicians. Weinberg and his contributors write from a European perspective, promising to shift the focus by providing a comparative reading (since US theorists have dominated contemporary scholarship on political psychology and political ambition) as well as providing us with the latest approaches. Further, the contributors are in the main psychologists writing about politics rather than political scientists borrowing from another discipline.

Weinberg’s book is divided into four sections: becoming politicians; being at the centre; coping with the pressure; and people as politicians. Surprisingly, these writers too largely avoid the question: why politics? In some cases a reversal of the critique that is often directed at political scientists who borrow from psychology (that they are not trained in psychology) seems justified: these writers may be expert psychologists but some seem at a tangent to real world politics. They write about leadership capabilities, for instance, as if they are dealing with conventional hierarchies in, say, a business setting and have never watched the messiness, sheer aggression and very variable qualities demanded in political contexts as powerful agents struggle for power.

The section on becoming politicians, for instance, talks of the rites of passage in the entry to British politics, the inchoate processes of candidate selection and the UK experiments to address this through introducing competency assessment. Parties have turned to psychologists and organisational analysts to develop measures to vet candidates for the ‘right qualities’. So much for capitalising on nascent ambition: one will now have to score on KSAs (knowledge, skills and attributes indicators). Later chapters advocate evaluating ‘social skills’, and one proposes leaders undertaking 360 degree feedback surveys: can one imagine Menzies, or Whitlam or Howard doing that? It’s astonishing that frustrated party agents, who fail to see that the parties are in decay because of their inadequate adaptation to social change, their cynical resort to marketing and their sacrifice of coherent differentiation in the attempt to appeal to all (see Walter & Strangio 2007, pp. 54–57), resort to these theorists in a vain attempt to capture a better kind of politician.

For all their worthy intentions, these approaches idealise and homogenise political types, ignoring context and taking too little account of the very different roles a politician might play: as thinker, administrator, fixer, constituency advocate, warrior, conciliator, negotiator, power broker. They seem oblivious to circumstances where a particular personality whom one could never imagine satisfying their preferred KSAs (let alone taking 360 degree surveys seriously) might be absolutely appropriate. Paul Keating would never have got a gig as an integral player in the reform process of the 1980s under a KSA regime; and what about Churchill, reckless, dangerous and politically suspect in the interwar period, an indifferent PM after the war, but precisely the right leader in a crisis?

Other parts of this book, however, are illuminating. Weinberg’s own chapter on the psychological strain of political life and the possible means of re-engineering roles to ameliorate dangerous levels of stress (and dysfunctional performance) is thought provoking. There is a fruitful contribution by Max Metselaar to ongoing debates about denial and avoidance (as a coping mechanism) in crisis situations, taking as a case study Lyndon Johnson’s and Robert McNamara’s failure to respond adequately to increasing intelligence of the impending Tet offensive in 1968. But perhaps the best chapters are those dealing with cognitive skills, both in the way politicians perform, and in the way voters reorganise their own cognitive maps in response to political leaders. It appears that cognitive analysis is currently one of the leading concerns in political psychology.

We need to understand the bounded rationality
of political choice.

That these chapters deal not only with European instances, but also (with the exception of Italy) with post-communist states (Poland and Ukraine) gives them particular interest as a comparative exercise. Caprara and colleagues’ chapter on ‘the political side of personality’ demonstrates the link of personality traits with political preferences. In Italy, supporters of the centre-right scored significantly higher than their counterparts on energy/extraversion and conscientiousness, whereas supporters of the centre-left showed significantly higher degrees of agreeableness and openness. Going on to link such traits with particular values, they corroborate the connection between self-reported traits, and values associated with traditional distinctions between left- and right-wing ideologies. Instead of deliberating upon massive amounts of information, or realistically assessing policy, voters seek candidates with dispositions they interpret as being similar to their own, and rely on that simplified knowledge of candidate characteristics rather than on real world appraisal in making their decisions. Inferred traits and values, along with predispositions, then, are significant in how choices are made. We need to understand the bounded rationality of political choice, and the limiting implications of the default mode of left- versus right-identification.

Golec de Zavala’s chapter on Polish politicians further highlights this conundrum in investigating the association between complex thinking and political action. There has long been research on the tendency for cognitive complexity to link with the liberal/progressive side of politics, while the need for cognitive closure and hence simplicity is reliably associated with conservative beliefs (Jost et al. 2003). Golec de Zavala not only provides more convincing evidence for this association, but also shows that it is the challenge of novelty and systemic change that promotes the emergence of politicians in parties of the right who, in order to satisfy their own need for closure, respond to uncertainty by asserting simple and unambiguous solutions. In turn, those voters most affected by the uncertainty of systemic transition (and least prepared to exercise sophisticated judgment) are mobilised by such appeals. A later chapter, by Pablo Frolov and colleagues, on Ukraine, deals with this in a different mode—the way in which politicians develop cognitive schemas, the linking of those schemas with values, and the manner in which voters respond and mobilise their own cognitive schemas (or world views) in assessing political leaders. They find that there are distinctions between political sophisticates, who will be relatively flexible and able to accommodate ambiguity, and those with more limited knowledge of politics, who will look for simple messages that alleviate their anxiety by seeming to cut through uncertainty. But in a context of rapidly changing ideologies, huge economic dislocation and the novel development of a multi-party system, voters at large developed relatively simple cognitive schemas focused on stable and fundamental characteristics instead of more complex and malleable political and ideological criteria.

As one turns to our own context, noting the emergence of extreme partisanship, the application by political activists of simplistic slogans to complex problems that persistently short-circuit policy debate, the decline of civic engagement and the apparent appeal to voters of unambiguous assertions by some of our leaders, a disturbing question arises. Are the coping strategies of both political elites and voters in these post-communist states indicative of broader patterns of closure in a world that needs the very opposite; that is, where dislocation, economic crisis and rapid systemic change instead demand complex thinking and sophisticated judgment? This brings us back to the challenge implied at the end of Lawless’s book: why politics, indeed, when the candidates most competent in dealing with contemporary complexity encounter the barriers of cynicism and simplistic adversarialism that would have to be overcome in order to pursue politics with a higher purpose?


Jost, J.T. & Sidanius, J. (eds) 2004, Political Psychology: Key Readings, Psychology Press, New York.

Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W. & Sulloway, F. 2003, ‘Political conservatism as motivated social cognition’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 129, no. 3, pp. 383–393.

Lasswell, H. 1948, Power and Personality, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA.

Lasswell, H. 1958, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How, World Publishing, New York.

Marr, D. 2010, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, Quarterly Essay 38, Black Inc., Melbourne.

McAllister, I. 1992, Political Behaviour: Citizens, Parties and Elites in Australia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2001, ‘Cultural obstacles to equal representation’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 126–140.

Sears, D.O., Huddy, L. & Jervis, R. (eds) 2003, The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Walter, J. & Strangio, P. 2007, No, Prime Minister: Reclaiming Politics from Leaders, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Walter, J. & ’t Hart, P. 2009, ‘Political psychology’, in The Australian Study of Politics, ed. R.A.W. Rhodes, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, pp. 356–365.

James Walter is professor of politics at Monash University, and has spent nearly thirty years talking to politicians and policy makers about why they do what they do. He has published widely on leadership, political psychology, biography and the history of ideas. His latest book is What Were They Thinking? The Politics of Ideas in Australia (2010, UNSW Press), which won the Mayer Prize for Australian Politics in 2011.