Emory Report
October 25, 2004
Volume 57, Number 9


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October 25 , 2004
Does character matter in politics?

Randall Strahan is associate professor of political science

Next week American voters will again be faced with the task of choosing the officials who govern this country. We know that for many this decision will simply reflect underlying partisan loyalties; Democrats will vote for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans.

Yet for those without strong partisan attachments or those dissatisfied with their party’s nominee, other considerations will come into play. Judgments about each candidate’s ability to conduct foreign policy and protect national security in the post-9/11 world are going to be of central importance. These issues in turn point to questions about the personal qualities required to direct American foreign policy well in these times: Are moral certainty and the resolve to maintain a steady course in the face of criticism and adversity the qualities most needed, or is the better choice a deliberative turn of mind, sensitivity to the complexities of international politics, and the ability to change course as conditions change?

I’ve been thinking about what guidance my discipline of political science might have to offer here. Having written recently on how one of the Founding Fathers approached these questions, I am struck by how contemporary political science and the political thought of the founding period diverge on them.

To be sure, some political scientists, such as the late James David Barber, have wrestled with the question of how the character of individual politicians matters; however, today’s most influential school of political science is mostly silent. Known as rational choice theory, work in this vein begins with the assumption that all politicians pursue their own individual self-interest, usually understood in terms of ambition to hold power. Figure out what politicians need to do to win and hold power in a political system, these studies tell us, and you will find the explanation for most of what they do. A politician’s personal qualities can matter, but these effects are of limited interest in part because they tend to be idiosyncratic and cannot be reliably predicted. From this perspective, institutions such as electoral rules that define incentives for holding power are thought to be what matter most; individual politicians are sufficiently similar in their character and motivations that their personal qualities are of limited interest for understanding and explaining political life.

For those who know their political history (or remember a past encounter with The Feder-alist), this view of politicians as ambitious power-seekers might even seem a venerable American tradition. No less a figure than James Madison—“father” of the Constitution—argued that neither “enlightened statesmen” nor the “better motives” of elected officials could be relied upon to prevent abuses of governmental power. In a well-designed constitution, as Madison wrote in The Federalist, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

If the architecture of the political system George W. Bush and John Kerry are seeking to lead is based on the view that politicians are ambitious and self-interested, aren’t the architects of that system and contemporary political science in fundamental agreement? That good government depends much less on individual politicians’ character than on the constitutional forms that check their ambitions?

Madison, along with the most thoughtful founders, certainly demonstrated a kind of hardheaded realism on this subject. Yet throughout The Federalist and elsewhere in his writings, Madison also speaks repeatedly of the importance of having political offices filled by “fit characters,” “individuals of extended views” or persons of “generous principles,” and of the need to design constitutions that can select out and sustain “virtuous” officeholders who “will feel most strongly the proper motives.” Writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1780, Madison lamented the “defect of adequate statesmen” in the Continental Congress, which made it “more likely to fall into wrong measures and of less weight to enforce right ones.”

What to make of these statements? How could these be written by a man who believed most political action is motivated by personal self-interest and that effective political institutions work by channeling that self-interest?

In fact, a careful reading of The Federalist reveals a view of politicians that is more complex, subtle—and interesting. Well-designed constitutions, it holds, work not only to control and channel politicians’ self-interest, but also to select and encourage leaders inclined to use public office to advance the public good.

Drawing on his own experience and his study of political history, Madison believed that motives for political action are of two types. One set is higher and arises from an enlightened or reasoned attachment to the public good as inseparable from one’s own individual good, or from concern for one’s reputation and the good opinions of others. However, according to Madison, these motives are less common and weaker than other, lower motives more often found among those contending for power: ambition and personal interest.

Madison did argue that a properly designed constitution should check abuses of power and channel the lower motives in beneficial ways. The ambition to hold power, for example, can be useful in causing the legislature and the executive to resist encroachments on their respective constitutional spheres. But other features of the Constitution Madison helped design have a different political logic; to cite one important example, Madison considered a relatively small legislative body elected for long terms (the Senate) to be critical.

Why did he consider such a body to be so important? First, Madison believed higher political motives are less likely to prevail when individuals act in large groups. As he famously observed in The Federalist: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

In addition, Madison thought some members of a smaller, more permanent body would be especially inclined to advance the public good out of a concern for reputation—both their own and their country’s. However, a sufficiently strong concern for reputation, Madison also observed in The Federalist, “can only be found in a number so small that a sensible degree of the praise and blame of public measures may be the portion of each individual; or in an assembly so durably invested with public trust that the pride and consequence of its members may be sensibly incorporated with the reputation and prosperity of the community.” In short, the character and motives of individual politicians differ and matter, with those attracted to highly visible positions such as senator or president being most likely to be motivated to advance the public good.

If the political science of this earlier era assigns more weight to the character of politicians than does the most influential body of work in political science today, what guidance might this earlier perspective offer to the voter perplexed about what choice to make on Nov. 2? Perhaps that elected politicians and candidates for office include not only those motivated by ambition and the narrower forms of self interest, but also individuals whose motives include a genuine concern for the public good. And, contrary to what many partisans would have us believe, no party is likely to exercise a monopoly on either the higher or lower motives in politics.

The real question may be less about which candidate seeks to advance the public good, than which vision of the public good is right, or which type of individual we are more inclined to trust with our national security. I suspect most voters understand that the character of the president will matter a great deal for what happens in the world after this election. Perhaps it is we political scientists rather than the voters who need to give the importance of character more thought.

This essay is adapted from Strahan’s chapter, “Personal Motives, Constitutional Forms and the Public Good: Madison on Political Leadership,” in James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government, edited by Samuel Kernel (Stanford University Press, 2003).