Hacker: The greasy pole is important. I have to climb it.
Hacker: Because it's there.
Yes, Minister: "The Greasy Pole"
I'm convinced that we don't have a good handle on ambition. I'll try to write more about that later...among other things, I think it's safe to say that we don't like ambition, and that we're suspicious of the ambitious. At least, if we think of them that way (Lincoln and Washington were both highly ambitious, but it's not exactly the trait that we celebrate).
And yet, we do not have a system in which offices are dispensed by lottery. In fact, we have a system based on ambition. Therefore, the very least I think we can say about ambition is that whatever one might think about a system that rewards and requires ambition, it makes no sense at all to judge individuals who succeed within that system on how ambitious they are. They are all ambitious. You don't get to be a serious candidate for President of the United States of America without being ambitious. And, for the most part, you don't get to be a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States of America without being ambitious. That's not an absolute -- as far as I know, lightning did strike in the case of David Souter -- but for the rest of them? Absolutely. Not just Kagan: Sotomayor, Roberts, Alito...they all organized their lives in such a way that they could be serious candidates for the high court. Even someone such as Robert Bork did that; he badly, by all accounts, wanted to be on the court -- he just misjudged the rules and norms of how to get there.
I'm pretty confident that this suspicion of ambition is what's at the core of the unease with Kagan expressed by David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan (see also an interesting reaction from Ta-Nehisi Coates). My advice for them is simple: get over it. Of course SCOTUS candidates are going to be ambitious and organize their lives around the pursuit of a seat on the court, just as presidential candidates, or Speakers of the House, are going to do the same. It's not just an effect of the post-Bork rules, either; change the process, either by reforming the rules or otherwise, and you'll get highly ambitious nominees who play by those rules. Make strong public position-taking important, and then you'll get people like Kagan and Roberts who publish lots of provocative arguments. Same ambition, just tailored for whatever the norms demand. Of course, presidents used to put actual politicians, people who had run for office, onto the Court, but I think we can safely assume that Taft and Warren were just as insanely ambitious as Kagan and Roberts.
1. Regardless of the way we choose Justices or any other top position, we're going to get candidates who are highly ambitious; there's just no way to avoid that.
2. Therefore, it is foolish to count it against any candidate that she appears to be ambitious, or that she does the sorts of things that people who want to reach the Court (or other high office) organize their lives to do.
3. It is possible, however, to think of reforms that would change the ways that ambition is expressed. If you want more explicit statements of political positions, make that a requirement. Just don't mistake any of that for purging ambition from the system, or for opening the gates to less ambitious people.
(By the way: I'm thinking that it's possible that not everyone has watched Yes, Minister. If yolu're at all interested in governing, this is completely unacceptable. Highest recommendation; a great, great series).