The academy in politics?

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my mid-teens. At the time I was in a German secondary school, and the then West German Economics Minister was Professor Karl Schiller. Schiller was an academic economist of some distinction, and he became a key figure, first of the CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ under Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, and then of the SPD-FDP coalition government of Willy Brandt. He was known for policies that he summarised with the slogan ‘as much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Right now, as various professors are considered for the job of Prime Minister of Italy, it is maybe apposite to reflect on the role of academics in career politics. There have been a few politicians who, when their political careers looked to be over, easily settled into academic life: Larry Summers and Roy Jenkins are examples. Some have travelled in the opposite direction, but not many: apart from Karl Schiller, good examples would be Ireland’s last three Presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Is this because universities are seen as hothouses for theory rather than operational action? Or is it the case that, as one commentator has suggested, ‘many very clever people would make very bad politicians.’

The role of academics as political advisers is widely accepted, but not so much their capacity for political leadership. In a world that is becoming hugely complex in economic, social and technological contexts, would academic politicians have the capacity for a better, or worse, understanding of these complexities? Or should the academy stay away from this sort of thing altogether?

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4 Comments on “The academy in politics?”

  1. Vince Says:

    Academics are doers.
    And assume like many that politics is a place for people like them. But it isn’t. Politicians don’t do doing. Civil servants don’t let them. Civil servants only allow politicians to tinker with people they see don’t matter, like the unemployed, or the elderly. Indeed like in Ireland when the elderly forced the civil service to U-turn on a pension reduction they got at them through all the secondary benefits. But back to the point.
    Most academics get that, they see they would be pounding powder and sawing sawdust for the best years of their lives for the possible, albeit, unlikely seat.
    As to Italy. I truly don’t believe politicians are intended to do anything beyond block the other shower. Indeed they are the 4th largest economy in Europe because politicians are kept out of the real economy. Look at how the holier-than-thou attitude to the black economy crucified us when the crisis hit. There was no liquidity in Ireland or the UK that in the crisis going way back sat in peoples wardrobes untaxed, un-leveraged, but ready to seed faith again. No body could do a darn thing that wasn’t sanctioned and signed off while Italy just retooled and got on with it. Uncle Joe had a bit set aside.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    I never believed in the distinction between “those who think vs those who act”, often quoted as the reason for academics’ inability to become good politicians, neither do I share the view that since most academics are careful and cautious thinkers not prone to hasty or ill-judged decisions, they might find themselves not at ease in backroom party deals and wheeling-and-dealing, in fact anyone who has worked in academia has come across that pernicious phenomenon that goes under the name of ‘academic politics’.

    As the post mentions there have been several academics who had illustrious careers as politicians, across Europe and the US (Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama were academics), in Italy in particular it has become a bit of a tradition to call upon the skills and expertise of ‘professors’ at moment of political crisis, former Prime Minister Mario Monti was an economist just like the current interim Prime Minister Cottarelli, this is what I call the “Cincinnatus complex” of Italian politics from the Roman statesman who saved the Republic at a time of grave peril (

    I would argue that if ever there was a time for more academics to get involved in politics it is right now, when populist cacophonies are at their loudest and shaping an alternative political imaginable is a moral imperative, also there is a ‘vocational’ aspect which academia and politics have in common, see Max Weber’s lecture’s “politics as a vocation” (1919), the very last paragraph:

    Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth –that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has
    the calling for politics. (

    PS. I have always found multiverse theories ( very intriguing, hence I’d like to think that in one I’m right now Prime Minister of Italy, while in another one I am an interior designer, easy guess which would be the most uncomplicated career!

    • I like that idea also.

      Mind you, I have worked with interior designers who say that their job is impossible because they have to have a client and that client is always a philistine.

  3. Harold Wilson is another example – an Economics lecturer from a very early age. My feeling is that not many academics become politicians because we’re trained to admit and consider nuance – precisely the opposite of what’s required to achieve (though not necessarily wield) power.

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