Political Intelligence, Defined

Gina Loudon
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Posted: Mar 31, 2012 12:01 AM

As we argued in Part One, no definition of intelligence has achieved universal acceptance. However, essential elements exist. In most sciences, intelligence embodies the ability of an organism to survive and adapt to its environment.

Our concept of Political Intelligence borrows from this notion. Specifically, Political Intelligence refers to the ability of a politician to survive, adapt to one’s historical, political, and personal environments, and as a result, achieve success.

The essential elements of Political Intelligence are debatable (as are those of any intelligence construct), but we have sorted them into three broad categories: Scholarly Intelligence, Social-Emotional Intelligence, and Pragmatic Intelligence.

Scholarly Intelligence (SI) encompasses the more traditional facets of intelligence—those generally stemming from advanced education and other studious environments. Generally, successful politicians are reasonably learned and evidence a solid overall education. Professors and members of Mensa are poster children for those with high Scholarly Intelligence.

The most important subcategory of Scholarly Intelligence is Verbal Potency. Steve Martin once quipped, “Some have a way with words; some…have not way.” While a rich vocabulary, quick wit, and efficient use of words are all impressive and necessary verbal skills, politicians must also be artful enough to speak with powerful metaphors and employ familiar and relevant references (e.g., accurately quoting the Bible). Simultaneously, they must appear passionate, natural, and believable while delivering messages to their staff, the media, the public, and other politicians. Bill Clinton arguably was and remains a master of this skill, while many are increasingly impressed by Marco Rubio’s fluency and clarity. Interestingly, President Obama’s rhetorical skills, once considered Olympian, are now regarded with less awe.

A second crucial subcategory of SI is Learnedness. Politicians are not expected to be omniscient, but a candidate who possesses a reasonable breadth and depth of knowledge about socio-political matters will make a more favorable impression than one who appears ignorant. For example, few doubt Paul Ryan’s comprehensive grasp of the workings of the economy and a broad range of policies.

The final facet of SI is Common Sense. Perhaps the most difficult skill to define, it has a “you know it when you see it” quality. Common sense includes the ability to understand complex matters in simple terms, as well as the ability to devise simple solutions to complex problems. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the IRS tax code’s mindboggling complexity, which we doubt anyone would describe as an example of common sense. Herman Cain’s “9-9-9 Plan” or the “Penny Plan” provide contrasting solutions that seek to use common sense.

Social-Emotional Intelligence (SEI) refers to a politician’s self-awareness, self-control, and ability to make and maintain working alliances to achieve goals.

SEI divides into three subcategories. The first is Sociability. More than simple charisma or likability, it involves the ability to find common ground with people of all stripes—even one’s political adversaries. This trait enables one to transcend political rivalry—often by disarming language and demeanor—to achieve compromise or outright victory. Ronald Reagan was the quintessential sociable politician; his testy but profoundly successful relationships with nemeses Tip O’Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev are legendary.

Emotional Maturity incorporates the capacity for and ability to express empathy with sufficient self-control to command respect. We assert that the general dissatisfaction of the public toward government emanates in part from the perception of a deficit in this functional sphere. Notable exceptions might include Joe Lieberman on the Left and Jon Kyl on the Right.

Sense of Humor goes deeper than joking with pundits at Press Club events. It involves a natural sense of amused self-deprecation. George W. Bush endeared himself to friends and voters along the campaign trail by appearing transparent in his fallen humanness (although his enemies often mischaracterized it as dimwittedness or a lack of seriousness). Candidates who can deftly and humbly turn the inevitable gaffe or uncomfortable moment into something amusing can virtually save a campaign or presidency. 

Finally, there are three traits that comprise Pragmatic Intelligence (PI), which can loosely be defined as the ability to comprehend the current macro-environment and to place practicality and effectiveness above one’s personal goals.

The most important PI skill is Adaptability. A politician blessed with this intellectual gift can attend to and incorporate the political will of one’s own personal mandate, the will of one’s allies, and the prevailing political will of the electorate, and then change course when necessary. Bill Clinton modeled this after suffering heavy congressional losses in 1994; he was savvy enough to reform himself as a moderate who then could deal effectively with the Republican-led Congress. He then achieved impressive successes in reforming welfare and riding a wave of economic prosperity.

The second is Resourcefulness, which originates from the self-awareness that one cannot achieve political ends singlehandedly. The resourceful politician surrounds himself with the crème de la crème of advisors, experts, and staffers and shows efficiency in utilizing resources. President Lincoln’s success as chronicled in Team of Rivals offers an excellent case study of this manifestation of humility, a trait that essentially blends intellectual honesty and emotional maturity. Rick Santorum’s campaign provides a current example, having made a significant impact with relatively few tangible resources.

The final PI skill is Prioritization, which describes the wise allocation of political energy and capital. For example, some pro-life supporters have noted a lack of focus on abortion in the current dialogue. Rather than indicating a lack of passion, belief, or political will on the part of the current Republican candidates, this reflects awareness that the economy overshadows all other issues. To make abortion a primary focus would not be wrong; but it would arguably be an ill-advised allocation of political energy at this point. Similarly, many have criticized President Obama’s overwhelming investment of political capital into the healthcare debate and racial tensions, both of which seem to have contributed to a great deal of hostility and deadlock that he now laments—and for which the public may hold him accountable.

As with any construct, these categories are debatable. We also understand that there are a host of additional factors that qualify one candidate more than another, including policy positions, moral character, tenacity, and spiritual beliefs. However, political intelligence is an essential concept that should garner serious attention in the upcoming election cycle. We hope that these ideas will spawn further discussion on political intelligence and that these discussions will bolster voters’ ability to judge a candidate’s overall viability and desirability.

In Part Three, we will unveil the PIQI: Political Intelligence Quotient Inventory. This instrument will offer voters and pundits the objective criteria—along with a scale—by which they can judge which candidates possess the requisite intellectual skills for political success.

**Dr. Dathan Paterno of Park Ridge Psychological Services contributed to this column**