The Undiscovered Country: Actually running for office

There’s a lot of common advice that amounts to political due diligence: know who your representatives and other elected officials are, hold them accountable by contacting them about important matters, support more progressive candidates wherever possible, vote tactically…. There’s one possibility that comes up so seldom that I wonder if it’s even thinkable for people: run for office yourself. That would be an extremely concrete way to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

No matter how much political pressure we put on these politicians, there’s no replacement for actually being the person with decision-making power. And particularly for academics, it’s clear that no one is going to stand up for us and our values except, you know, one of us. But academics especially seem uncomfortable with the idea of actually wielding institutional power.

Part of it is surely the sense that it’s hopeless, but that may stem from an excessive focus on the federal level. Yes, we can’t jump straight to being a US senator. But the Republicans have shown over the past decade how amazingly powerful state and municipal offices can be. They are not expensive offices to campaign for — indeed, many are uncontested. Republican gerrymandering has done a lot of damage, but so has the Democrats’ failure to even show up to the fight.

I suspect it’s not just fatalism, though. For academics especially, but also for many with convictions to the left of the Democratic party, there is a serious distrust of the political structure as such, a gut-level rejection of the idea of becoming part of it. And there is also the fact that doing this seriously would mean disrupting one’s life — something that is equally unappealing whether you are thinking of interrupting the trajectory toward full academic privileges or whether you already enjoy them.

Obviously this is not something that I’m doing or planning to do in the near future. I write this post not to pass judgment, but to ask why the option of actually seeking political office seems to be so radically absent from the common political wisdom of “how to make a difference,” especially in lefty academic circles. So: what do you think?

8 thoughts on “The Undiscovered Country: Actually running for office

  1. I think another part of it is that liberals, and especially academics, lack the conservative belief that government is so purely a matter of common sense that any random idiot can do it. (With our current situation being, obviously, the apotheosis of that belief.) If I think about running for school board or zoning board or city council or state assembly, the first thought that comes to my mind is “But I don’t know anything about that stuff! I’m a music theorist, for God’s sake!” Liberals these days are more sold on the general idea of expertise, and academics have a probably inflated view of expertise as something that takes literally decades to develop before being of any use at all. If I were a conservative, though, I’d just assume that the right thing to do in all situations would be completely obvious, and I would happily run for office, exercising my lunatic whims and calling them common sense.

  2. A one-time friend of mine with Theology PhD and experience working in Treasury actually became a Member of Parliament. He soon discovered that academic qualifications were distrusted by many on the Left. Also that years of being in opposition wear down any hope.

    In contrast another one-time friend (there is perhaps a common thread here) with a PhD went into the civil service, rose quickly through the ranks and is far more positive and has a far greater influence nationally than the M.P. He also is in an environment where academic qualifications are highly valued.

    Both would consider themselves Liberals. So is the question whether one wants the appearance of power and influence or the reality of them?

    Conversely, is what you are asking actually the same question as making the jump from being an academic into university management? How many successful academics become successful tertiary managers?

  3. Hmn you might have turned me. I always thought of going into politics EVENTUALLY but have been told several times to work in a ‘normal’ job for decades before running. To be honest though i think even if I run straight from school I’ll have more relevant experience than a lot of leaders…

  4. Personality type? Academia selects for, I’m not sure that introverts is the right term, precisely, but people who are very comfortable spending a lot of time alone reading and writing. This is not a great place to start from for a career that requires charming people into giving you money wholesale.

  5. I think introverts is exactly the right term. But I also think that introverts can be very good at certain setpiece-type performances demanded by politicians — such as lecturing, for instance, or even leading discussion with a limited time/topic.

  6. In my experience politicians do tend to be extroverts. Not all but most. Barack Obama was considered introverted for a politician and I don’t think he is very introverted. It helps to be constantly schmoozing and reaching out to people, it isn’t just set piece performances. Fundraising, events, outreach of all kinds, even working with your staff. Speeches are the least of it. It’s very very much a people job. People are in your face constantly and you have to be “on” a lot.

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