Sunday, October 17, 2010

More Notes on Ambition

Following up on my ambition post from Friday...

1.  Seth Masket has an excellent point (and thanks for the blog love, Seth!).  I had speculated that lack of ambition was a factor in George W. Bush's failures as president.  Seth: "I think it was augmented somewhat by the fact that Bush's vice president had no aspirations for the presidency, creating even less incentive to do the stuff that voters care about." 

2.  Some of the comments responding to my post tried to draw a distinction between healthy and unhealthy ambition, with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as examples of the latter.  I'm not sure that's the right way to go...after all, the things that Johnson and Nixon did resulted in both of them ending up very unpopular and chased from office.  But I'm not sure it's wrong, either, which leads to:

3.  In my view, political scientists haven't done a very good job at all of sorting through the concept of ambition.  The literature talks about ambition for office, which is fine as far as it goes (and is basically what I used in my post the other day), but I don't think it really goes very far.  Think, for example, about Dick Cheney.  It's true that as Veep he didn't have "progressive ambition" -- he didn't run for president, and as far as we know really didn't have any intention of running for president.  And as Seth says, that had real consequences.  Yet I think it would be a real mistake to say that he had no ambition at all; it's just that his ambitions were devoted (apparently) towards amassing influence during the Bush presidency, not towards having a presidency of his own.  Overall, I just think we collectively don't quite have a handle on ambition.


  1. Quick point: While no one would accuse Obama of being unambitious, he may well end up as another second-term president with a VP also uninterested in running for president.

  2. LBJ's unhealthy ambition gave us the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid.

    More unhealthy ambition, please.

  3. "In my view, political scientists haven't done a very good job at all of sorting through the concept of ambition."

    My thought exactly, but I have a peculiar spin on this. I teach at a community college, so I cover intro government alot. This means that I hit the Federalist Papers, especially #10 and #51, regularly, and they never ever get old. Madison's insights about political man and how to design a constitutional order around him, in my mind, have never been topped. As we all know, the constitutional system is designed to compensate for human nature, not by changing it -- which is impossible -- but by incorporating it into the constitution's very design. A neat trick.

    Fed 51 states, as we all know, that ambition is the driving force that keeps the separated powers in check. This tells me that ambition must be studied carefully if we are to properly understand the ongoing nature of the constitution order, and I don't mean the constitution as a stale meaningless object, but as a document that continues to direct how the wheels of the ship of state turn. It presents, in my mind, valuable research questions that I don't think political science adequately addresses. It's not interesting to ask whether office holders are ambitious, they wouldn't be there if they weren't, but how does the constitutional order structure their ambition once in office? What interplay of ambition exists among the constitutional (and lower) offices? Have there been changes over time in how the ambitions in one office have counteracted the ambitions of the others? What has this done to the balance between three branches? Does ambition really counteract ambition? Think of Cheney's ambition in this light.

    I've always thought Madison, and the bulk of the other founders, asked more interesting questions than do modern political scientists. I suppose that explains my career choice.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?