Jonathan Bernstein

Want to Understand Politics? Focus on Ambition.

Let’s talk a bit about ambition.

Once upon a time, I taught a course called “The Politican,” which was about … you guessed it: politicians. It was an unusual course because there is no real study of politicians as a group — there are scholars of US politics who specialize in Congress, in the presidency, in state government, in parties, in social movements, in voters, and more, but not in politicians. As far as I know, the same applies to all the other broad subfields within the larger discipline.

It seemed to me that one of the topics the class should cover was ambition. But I was dissatisfied with how political scientists wrote about the concept. The questions they asked were about which office a politician might seek — and how badly he or she wanted it. I wound up thinking that such questions often yielded very limited insights. For example, it’s reasonable to say that ambitious politicians will be more likely to run for higher office if there’s no incumbent on the ballot or if national tides favor their political party. More generally, the higher the barrier to office the more ambition it will take to run. Or to think of another example: Yes, we might want to group together senators such as Ted Cruz and Amy Klobuchar, who have sought the presidency before and probably are thinking of trying again; senators such as Patty Murray and Lisa Murkowski, who seem to have reached the office they’re interested in and want to say there; and those like Pat Leahy and James Inhofe, who are on their way to retirement. And those groups might help us understand some of their behavior — hey, the presidential candidates in the Senate judiciary committee are trying to raise their profiles within their party! But it struck me that these kinds of observations didn’t reveal much about the larger idea of ambition.

One smart group of undergrads pushed me to what I think is a more useful way of thinking about the topic. Instead of asking “how much?” or “for which office?,” we should think instead about how different politicians are seeking different things. We can ask: Why did Joe Biden, or Mitch McConnell, or Elizabeth Warren, or Jeb Bush, or Bernie Sanders get into politics in the first place? What would they count as success? What, in other words, is the content — the substance — of their ambition?

A politician who is mainly in it to fix a specific injustice (say, an unjust war or an overly intrusive government) is going to act a lot differently than one who likes the wheeling and dealing aspects of legislating. Or one who likes being on TV. Or one who wants to advance the interests of some demographic group. Or one who is a huge fan of a party leader and is inspired to emulate him or her. Or one who is essentially just carrying on the family business.

Not only are all these lawmakers different, but it seems to me that those differences might help explain their choices. Not just how members of Congress vote within the chamber, but how they spend their time, which committee assignments they seek, whether they’re workhorses or show horses, whether they’re drawn to legislative or executive positions, and much more.

There are clearly some problems with this approach, from the challenge of actually knowing what the content of anyone’s ambition is to the dangers of focusing too much on individual politicians and not the environment they work in and the incentives they encounter. But I do think it’s a promising way of thinking about politics. On the one hand, it can do what biographers do and give careful attention to the particulars of individual politicians — but it could also be useful for generalizing across larger groups. And that could help answer other important questions about how the ambitions of politicians may have changed over time, or may differ across countries, or from national level to local levels, or more.