The pursuit of power: does virtue or vice lead to political success?

Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima, the first by a serving US president since the nuclear bombing, prompted reflections on Harry Truman, who ordered the attack.

Truman became a senator a little over a decade before he assumed control of the Oval Office following Roosevelt’s death. The Democrat’s meteoric rise left him well placed to comment on the vagaries of political success and the challenges of climbing the greasy pole.

“In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still,” said Truman. “Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

But are courage and skill enough to triumph in the US political system, or in any other? Or do the black arts of political skulduggery and spin play a more important role in seizing and maintaining power?

It is a debate we can expect to see played out as the increasingly likely Clinton-Trump race for the White House hots up.

A recent feature in “Scientific American,” highlighted in The Jubilee Centre’s ‘Research and Policy Digest’ (no. 40), looks at virtue and vice in relation to political influence and leadership.[1]

The article looks at a study of 151 US senators, conducted by the University of California, which suggested that politicians displaying virtuous behaviour tend to be more successful at obtaining co-sponsorship of bills – and thus political influence – than those exhibiting behaviour indicative of vice or psychopathy.

Such a study is particularly relevant to the projects the Jubilee Centre has undertaken on the role of virtues in the professions as well as the Centre’s mission to examine the role of virtue and character in contemporary society.

Two hypotheses of political influence are highlighted in the study[2]. The first, labelled the “virtue hypothesis,” follows the philosophy of Aristotle; and the second, the “vice hypothesis,” follows the philosophy of Machiavelli.

The virtue hypothesis suggests political influence is gained through the development of virtues such as humility, courage and gratitude, which Aristotle believed would create effective political leaders of productive, harmonious societies.

The second suggests power is gained through manipulation, deceit, and force, with sheer possession of power the principal objective. Indeed, Machiavelli believed kindness was a sign of weakness, which opponents could use to their advantage.

Traits thought to indicate virtue (such as positive expressions, remarks about solution and compromise) and vice (a lack of emotion, frequent use of the pronoun “I”) were examined through an analysis of 60-second video footage. The footage showed each senator reading a similar speech, ultimately finding that those exhibiting more virtuous behaviours wielded more political influence.

It is important, however, to highlight some limitations of the study’s methodology – particularly the difficulties stemming from the indirect measurement of virtue used, the determination of all “political influence” using just the signifier of co-sponsorship of bills, and contextual factors affecting the results.

In attempting to assess whether participants were actually acting virtuously, it is very difficult to ascertain whether the senators’ behaviours exhibited evidence of underlying moral character, or whether the politicians being observed were acting instrumentally – primarily with their career or other interests in mind.

Nevertheless, such studies are very welcome. Whilst Machiavelli’s influence on contemporary political science is apparent, especially in models of analysis focused on rational choice and electoral competition, less work has been done to assess how evidence of virtuous traits in political leaders can deliver success and influence.

Such work is particularly pertinent given the creeping polarisation of politics evident in the USA and Western Europe. Whilst this trend has certainly seen the emergence of a number of distinctly Machiavellian leaders and campaigns, it remains to be seen whether virtue or vice will triumph in the current political climate.

Joseph Ward, Research Assistant/Impact Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues



[2] ten Brinke, et al. (2015) ‘Virtues, Vices, and Political Influence in the US Senate’, Psychological Science (Nov 2015) pp. 1-9.

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