When Knowledge Becomes Power—Academics who became politicians

Since I’m studying (or, really, am about to start studying) academic political science towards a PhD in Government, I get asked a lot if I want to become a politician, which seems like a strange question to me. Anyhow, it raises the interesting question of how often academics become politicians. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find other pre-compiled lists, so I made my own (obviously-incomplete) one.

Short answer: probably not that often, at least in electoral politics; there are tons of academics appointed to technocratic positions in government. As the Harvard Crimson writes in a piece about Elizabeth Warren:

As advisers and appointed officials, professors often lend expertise to a perpetually fluctuating brain trust that waxes and wanes with the fate of each party. They are the force behind many of the commissions and agencies that make the government run.

Very few, however, actually run for office. In the past 100 years, the list of prominent professors who ran and won national office is brief, and the list of those who ran and lost is not much longer.

For certain offices, it’s not hard to find academics; Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza Rice, for examples, were political science academics, or Solicitor Generals like Elena Kagan who were law Professors (or Federal Reserve Bankers like Bernanke who were Economics Professors). According to this Economist article, academics comprise a fair-share of politicians, especially in Egypt (though the article doesn’t detail how it defines politician, such as whether high-level bureaucrats are counted).

Powered by some vigorous, if not terribly systematic, searching of the internet, I made the following list of academic-politicians.  Here are some academics who tried electoral politics:

  1. Elizabeth Warren – The liberal Senator from Massachusetts and a well-known brand, Warren was a prestigious Harvard Law Professor before entering politics. She was head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election as Senator.
  2. Barack Obama – Speaking of law Professors who became Senators, the President comes to mind.
  3. Pablo Iglesias – He was a political science lecturer at the University of Madrid, before becoming a member of the European Parliament and leader of the nascent leftist, anti-establishment party Podemos in 2014.
  4. Alexander Van der Bellen, the President-elect of Austria from the Green Party after winning a run-off election in May 2016, is a retired Economics Professor at the University of Vienna.
  5. Woodrow Wilson (American President in from 1913-1921) was a Professor of Political Science before entering politics.
  6. Harold Laski – A bit less impressive than the people so-far; Laski was an economist at LSE and chaired the British Labour Party in 1945-1946.
  7. Robert Reich, the liberal economist (affiliated with Brandeis and UC Berkley) and author, ran (and lost, placing second in a crowded field) in the Democratic-primary for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. (Reich was also Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton).
  8. H. Stuart Hughes, a liberal academic, ran and lost an election for Massachusetts senate seat in 1962.
  9. Phil Gramm, once a Professor of Economics, served as a Democratic Congressman (1979–1983), a Republican Congressman (1983–1985) and a Republican Senator (1985–2002) from Texas.
  10. Enrique Márquez Jaramillo – I don’t think he falls into the “boring academic technocratic appointees” category but neither was he elected. Jaramillo, a Mexican politician, poet, and academic, was involved in municipal government in San Luis Potosi and a professor of sociology, among other political projects. Seems pretty left of center.
  11. Greg Rabidoux, a political science Professor at Austin Peay State University, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) in 2010.

Many of these people are quite new, which is probably a recency bias of some kind. Or we academics are only beginning to flex our muscles in the realm of state power, haha.

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