Tell me how to build my political skills!
May 17, 2010 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm involved in some pretty intense student organisations that revolve entirely around politics – not politics in the sense of political ideologies and left v right, but practical political behaviour. Success (i.e. ascending to the top) is based around who you know, who you can sweet-talk, manipulate or backstab rather than what you've done. At the same time, the UK general election has meant a lot has been said about the 'dark arts' of ladderclimbing, careful negotiation, positioning and politics within an organisation. The combination of the two has made me wonder - are political skills things you only pick up with experience or by being born with them? Are there any books, papers or other materials that I should look at if I want to learn how to become a canny political operator?
posted by emergent to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Getting the obvious one out of the way: The Prince.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:44 PM on May 17, 2010

You're going to want to start with the classic.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:45 PM on May 17, 2010

Learn as much game theory as possible.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:49 PM on May 17, 2010

You need to be absolutely convinced of your own self worth and blind to any of your failures. If they exist, they were somebody else's fault. Do not hesitate to use any means at your disposal to climb that ladder, even if it means standing on someone else's face.

In the UK, it will also help to have gone to a private school along the lines of Eton or Westminster, followed by Oxbridge. This will give you an advantage in the formation of networks of similarly minded people who may be able to assist you on your way to the top. Be careful though, as they will be ready to exploit you just as much as you will them.

I'd also suggest it would be more fun to be a Director of Communications a la Alastair Campbell than an elected representative.
posted by knapah at 12:52 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Knapah, I entirely agree on the Director of Communications point! Having an appointed role like Chief of Staff seems to be where the real interesting work is, with none of the accountability.

While I do tick the private school and Oxbridge boxes, so does almost everyone else jockeying for position, somewhat negating any benefits.
posted by emergent at 12:58 PM on May 17, 2010

Get involved in journalism, at any rank possible. Talk to and get to know as many people as possible in that field and mentally dissect everything they do, specifically with a means to screwing with and controlling them after you leave.

Aim to get a profile in political correspondence, perhaps work on a blog?

I'd also advise being cocky about your abilities. Turn up at party headquarters, once you have some sort of profile, and tout your wares. You might get lucky.

Getting to be Director of Comms or anything like it requires a great deal of skill, bravado, and a shitload of luck.

Incidentally, I'm just about to get out of political work, but I was on the policy side rather than neck deep in the dark arts.
posted by knapah at 1:10 PM on May 17, 2010

This is what's known as a "sociopath" under The Gervais Principle.

"The sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive. The are also the ones capable of equally impersonally exploiting a young idea for growth in the beginning, killing one good idea to concentrate resources on another at maturity, and milking an end-of-life idea through harvest-and-exit market strategies."


"The future sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence."
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:41 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

According to the ancients charisma is a product of three things only:

1.) common sense;
2.) some special technical expertise;
3.) goodwill towards all your fellows.

And that is it.

There is a famous paper on the Medicis where they analyze all the family connections in Florence in the quatracento and conclude that the Medicis were (as was Mao Tse Tung) of middling competence but happened to be the last ones standing when the bloodbath was over with.
posted by bukvich at 2:57 PM on May 17, 2010

Max Weber should give you something to think about.
The final result of political action often, no, even regularly, stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning. This is fundamental to all history, a point not to be proved in detail here. But because of this fact, the serving of a cause must not be absent if action is to have inner strength. Exactly what the cause, in the service of which the politician strives for power and uses power, looks like is a matter of faith.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:30 PM on May 17, 2010

Thanks T.D Strange. That quote perfectly described the campaign manager I worked with on my last federal campaign. And here I was, all this time, thinking he was just an asshole.
posted by Kerasia at 3:51 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with Inspector.Gadget about learning game theory. Check out Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his game theory applications to political science. Very insightful stuff.
posted by Zipf at 2:01 PM on May 18, 2010

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