Monday, August 30, 2010

Nerds in Politics

I got peeved by a phrase in this morning's Steve Sailer post about education reform:

"A Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, Bloomberg struck the press as the perfect non-ideological technocrat..."

Bloomberg hasn't struck the press as a technocrat because he's changed parties or because he's non-ideological (he's actually quite ideological). He's mostly struck them that way because he's a big nerd. Pretty much everybody who's heard him speak knows that.

This got me thinking about the fascinating topic of nerdy politicians. You'd think there wouldn't be any - pols need social skills almost as badly as pimps - and yet for some reason there are. At least three obvious nerds - Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich - have made it much higher in post-WWII American politics than Bloomberg ever will.  

Further afield, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ran Portugal as a dictator from 1932 to 1968, and who was named the greatest Portuguese person ever by Portuguese TV viewers in 2007, beating his closest rival (an unreconstructed Commie) by a better than 2-to-1 margin, was a big, big nerd. 

John Major always struck me as nerdy, though I don't know enough about British politics to be sure of this. This guy is definitely a nerd though.

I could probably name a dozen or two less prominent examples. On average nerds definitely make for more conservative politicians than normals, though there have been exceptions.

Weirdly enough, I think I do know why nerds can become successful in politics in spite of being spectacularly unsuited for it: we tend to be more interested in policy than almost any other group of human beings. And in order to affect policy one usually has to go into politics.

Shaking hands, kissing babies, making morally-questionable deals, managing subordinates - all of this is distasteful to nerds ("This would be a great job if it weren’t for the people", Richard Nixon), but if those things are the price of getting a chance to change the course of history, some nerds are willing to work at it.

In contrast, hyper-social politicians like Bill Clinton tend to enjoy the political process as an end in itself and are blander than bland on policy.

As a Russian-born history nerd I couldn't resist the question of whether or not a geek has ever governed The Motherland. The likeliest candidates would probably be Peter III, Paul I, and Yuriy Andropov. None of these were terribly important though, so I could well be wrong about them.


  1. Isn't Medvedev the most obvious Russian political nerd? :)

  2. Stupid of me to have missed him. My only defense now would be to say that he's never really governed Russia. :-)