The 16 Types of Politicians

by Benjamin Studebaker

A couple years ago I did a post dividing voters into 8 political types. I would now like to do something similar with politicians.

If you’ve ever taken one of those MBTI personality tests, you’re familiar with typing people via short-hand letter codes. That’s the kind of thing I’m going to do here. There are four different areas across which politicians can be fundamentally divided:

  1. Showy or Retiring (S or R)–some politicians enjoy campaigning and being seen, while others make public appearances reluctantly and only because the job demands it.
  2. Power-hungry or Consensus-oriented (P or C)–some politicians enjoy making decisions and exercising coercive power, while others are uncomfortable about imposing their will on others.
  3. Benevolent or Indifferent (B or I)–some politicians care a lot about achieving discrete political objectives which they take to be in the public interest, while others just enjoy the game.
  4. Knowledgeable or Ignorant (K or G)–some politicians are well-educated on the policies and institutions they make decisions about and interact with, while others don’t know what they’re doing.

The first two distinctions are relatively straight forward and easy to draw. The latter two are more likely to inspire disagreement. There are many people who think that many politicians who are ignorant are indifferent. I subscribe to Hanlon’s Razor–it is my view that there are very few truly indifferent politicians and that most politicians that strike us as indifferent are really just ignorant. There is also disagreement about which politicians are knowledgeable–some voters are ignorant, and that ignorance causes them to swap knowledgeable and ignorant politicians around. When we put these things together it’s easy for a politician who is benevolent and knowledgeable to be mistaken for ignorant, and for that ignorance to then be mistaken for indifference. So when we discuss those categories we should bear in mind that they will often be contested.

When we put these letter combinations together, we get 16 types. Here they are in a venn diagram, because those always help:


Let’s say a bit about each one.

The Indifferent-Ignorant Types: Those Who Neither Know Nor Care

RCIG (Retiring, Consensus, Indifferent, Ignorant): The Conformist

Conformists don’t really belong in politics, and I doubt there are very many true conformists. They don’t enjoy the show, the don’t enjoy the exercise of power, they are indifferent to the outcome, and they don’t know what they’re doing. Why would someone with those characteristics want to be in politics in the first place?  Usually conformist politicians are in office for the benefit of someone else. They are stand-ins meant to pack an institution or secure votes, and their loyalty is secured with patronage. Most conformists never become well known public figures. They’re unambitious machine politicians, symptoms of corruption. Good political systems keep them out.

SCIG (Showy, Consensus, Indifferent, Ignorant): The Conventionalist

Conventionalists are conformists who draw attention to themselves. Given that conformists are in office to quietly rig the system in favor of somebody else who cares, a conventionalist is a liability. Given time, conventionalists will inadvertently throw the light on what the conformists are up to. So there is even less reason for conventionalists to be in politics, but because of their showiness conventionalists are more likely to volunteer for jobs that ought to go to conformists. An incompetent machine boss will fail to differentiate and place conventionalists in office, eventually leading to public scandals which can undermine or destroy the machine. So while conventionalists are not good at politics, they can help us by screwing up in public and thereby enabling us to see where the trouble lies.

RPIG (Retiring, Power, Indifferent, Ignorant): The Swamp Monster

Swamp monsters are your classic machine bosses. They’re gangster politicians–they keep a tight lid on things, they like to get their hands dirty, and they neither know nor care about the public good. They need minions who will not challenge them and they get them from CI types and occasionally from unwitting CBs.

SPIG (Showy, Power, Indifferent, Ignorant): The Used Car Salesman

Used car salesmen are better at the show than swamp monsters. This is double-edged–it both exposes them to greater scrutiny and gives them greater ability to overcome scandals when they do arise. While swamp monsters want to avoid being the center of attention, used car salesmen knows how to manipulate the attention they receive to their benefit. The swamp monster is harder to catch, but the used car salesman is harder to kill.

The Indifferent-Knowing Types: The Textbook Villains

RCIK (Retiring, Consensus, Indifferent, Knowing): The Cog

Cogs don’t draw attention to themselves, don’t step out of line, and don’t ask questions, but unlike conformists they know things. This enables them to look out for themselves and their machine bosses more effectively–they’re more likely to see trouble and alert their friends to it. Reliable cogs are essential in any sustainable corrupt system. Because they are knowledgeable and consensus-oriented, they can do significant good if they’re led by a PBK type. Think of Doug Stamper in House of Cards.

SCIK (Showy, Consensus, Indifferent, Knowing): The Chief of Staff

Unlike conventionalists, whose ignorance renders their showiness a liability, chiefs of staff know enough to effectively and reliably use their social skills to paint their friends in the best possible light. They are good at winning over new friends and good at defending the reputations of current ones. Like cogs, they have a lot of moral flexibility and can be used for good if surrounded by PBKs.

RPIK (Retiring, Power, Indifferent, Knowing): The Puppetmaster

Unlike the swamp monster, who is a mere mobster in a suit, the puppetmaster is a refined operator. Because he knows what the public good is and how politics works, the puppetmaster can last much longer and do much greater damage. Puppetmasters know precisely how much they can get away with. They know when to make concessions and when to push things, and they will readily swap sides to stay in power. More common in the days before television, puppetmasters are less likely to rise to the top today because they struggle to maintain a convincingly authentic public face in front of the cameras and will lash out when subjected to prolonged pressure. Those who think Richard Nixon had impure motivations might put him here:

SPIK (Showy, Power, Indifferent, Knowing): The Gladhander

Today the gladhander is far more common than the puppetmaster. Gladhanders will figure out what you want them to be and charm you into thinking they fit that mold. They’ll swap positions openly depending on who they’re talking to, but they’ll do it with a warmth and fuzziness that defuses hostility. They do terrific in televised debates and they know how to work rooms. Bill Clinton is often accused of being a gladhander. During the 1992 campaign he said lots of nice things about offering an alternative economic theory and then continued with many of the same kinds of economic policies as president:

Hillary Clinton is similarly willing to change positions, but she is much less effective than Bill at being endearing while doing so. This would make her more of a puppetmaster than a gladhander. That said, many people think the Clintons are PBGs, not PIKs.

The Benevolent-Ignorant Types: The Well-Meaning Dopes

RCBG (Retiring, Consensus, Benevolent, Ignorant): The Useful Idiot

Useful idiots want to do good, but they lack the strength to lead and they lack the knowledge to know who to follow. This makes them followers. Unlike conformists, useful idiots don’t require patronage–they instead need to be regularly inspired. Gladhanders and glorious oafs love useful idiots and highly effective contemporary political movements often consist of a pack of useful idiots led by one of them.

SCBG (Showy, Consensus, Benevolent, Ignorant): The Bleeding Heart

Bleeding hearts will put their convictions ahead of winning power. When given a prominent position they can be nightmares for their parties, because they will constantly take unpopular positions and express them loudly while simultaneously deferring to those around them on decisions. Because they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re fundamentally unstrategic–they don’t know when to stop and they don’t prioritize effectively. They are however very authentic and can be appealing as backbenchers. Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party think he is a bleeding heart, and Clinton supporters would likely levy a similar accusation at Bernie Sanders.

RPBG (Retiring, Power, Benevolent, Ignorant): The Sophist

Sophists think they’re philosopher kings, but they’re not. They’re fundamentally mistaken about important things, and these mistakes end up haunting them in the end. Typically they either make a big moral mistake or they fundamentally misunderstand some policy or institution in a central way. Hillary Clinton could easily be a sophist. Most people think she made at least one big mistake:

  1. Some Bernie Sanders supporters think she misunderstands the economic situation from a normative standpoint–she doesn’t understand how the system is broken and what needs to be done.
  2. Other Bernie Sanders supporters think she misunderstands the political climate–though she might want to do many of the same things Sanders wanted to do, she made strategic mistakes because she did not correctly understand the public’s current attitude toward establishment policy and politics.

Those two complaints are not mutually exclusive–many Sanders supporters think she misunderstood both things. There were however other Sanders supporters who believe Clinton was not merely misinformed, but fundamentally corrupt–they would label her a puppetmaster rather than a sophist. Similar kinds of arguments could be made with respect to Richard Nixon.

SPBG (Showy, Power, Benevolent, Ignorant): The Glorious Oaf

Glorious oafs have most of the qualities that make a politician effective–they put on a great show, they are comfortable with power, and they genuinely do care about advancing the public good, but unfortunately they have no idea what they’re doing. The problem is that their other qualities make them very effective in persuading people to vote for them anyway. Once they get into office, they may run into several different sorts of difficulty:

  1. If they are ignorant about institutions, they may have the right policies but they won’t get much done.
  2. If they are ignorant about policy, they may do catastrophic damage to the country by accident.
  3. If they are ignorant about both policy and institutions, their ignorance about the latter will help mitigate their ignorance about the former.

At his best, Donald Trump might be a glorious oaf who knows so little about both institutions and policy that he does relatively little. At his worst he’s a used car salesman. Importantly, you don’t have to be ignorant about everything to fit these descriptions–in spite of all the stuff Trump doesn’t know about policies and institutions, he did know how to put on a show that was appealing to millions of people. Politicians with the S-G pairing can use their show skills to help them compensate for mistakes they make due to ignorance.

The Benevolent-Knowing Types: The Statesmen

RCBK (Retiring, Consensus, Benevolent, Knowing): The Listener

Listeners are a curious bunch. On the one hand, they make effective ground troops, because they are highly effective at getting a feel for the lay of the land. They can figure out what’s wrong and what to do about it because they don’t put selling themselves ahead of the project. They are willing to be led, but because of the BK combination they are more resistant to a leader who is an I-type or a G-type. Hillary Clinton’s biggest fans often describe her as a listener–someone who spends more time taking in data from a circle of advisers than imperiously making decisions. Of course, if Clinton’s critics are right, then those advisers often get things wrong and lead her astray. That would make her their useful idiot. This is the danger with politicians who are RC-types–without a very strong BK, RC-types can easily be led around, which often makes them only as good as the people in their circle. For this reason, I don’t think listeners are the best people to lead political movements–they are vulnerable to assimilation by puppetmasters and sophists who would turn them into useful idiots. An RC leader needs a very strong BK, or a circle of advisers which happens to be full of other BK-types.

SCBK (Showy, Consensus, Benevolent, Knowing): The Proceduralist

Proceduralists have one potential weakness–they will prevaricate when their braintrusts are divided. Their orientation toward consensus makes them risk-averse, but it also impedes their boldness. This results in a level of practical conservatism. Radical policies are not likely to win support from proceduralists’ entire circles, so they don’t end up making it through the decision-making process.

But in spite of the conservative orientation of proceduralists, we often see them in radical left wing circles because many left wingers are committed to radical, participatory, or procedural democracy. This can be absolutely fatal, because the radical orientation of left wing movements makes them especially prone to disagreement. Political movements that favor the status quo can only disagree on so much, because they have the status quo to unite them. But left wing movements want something different, and there can be an infinitely large number of permutations of something different. The result is that even though many proceduralists have a large number of good qualities, they can still sink their movements. Many student movements are led by very bright young people whose proceduralism proves ultimately fatal. Jeremy Corbyn’s defenders often stick up for him on the grounds that he’s a proceduralist rather than a bleeding heart.

RPBK (Retiring, Power, Benevolent, Knowing): The Philosopher King

Philosopher kings know what needs to be done and they have the will to do it. Their only problem is that they can’t stand the show. Philosopher kings are philosophers–they are all about the truth, and the show is all about appearance. This sometimes puts philosopher kings off being politicians entirely. Many academics would be philosopher kings if they ran for office. For those that do engage, they often find themselves drawn in different directions. On the one hand, they enjoy the opportunity to use power to make the world a better place. On the other hand, the constant need to perform for audiences makes them miserable. The big Dick Nixon fans think he’s a philosopher king. The Bernie Sanders fans think the same thing about their man (indeed, this is one of the biggest differences between Sanders and Corbyn–nobody really believes Corbyn is a philosopher king, but some people genuinely do view Sanders this way).

SPBK (Showy, Power, Benevolent, Knowing): The Consummate Leader

Consummate leaders enjoy everything about politics and they’re highly effective because they’re benevolent and know what they’re doing, but they’re also decisive and know how to put on extremely persuasive displays. Because of this, consummate leaders can be dominant figures for very long periods of time. Their only disadvantage is that sometimes they’re too good and become Caesar figures who bend and break institutional norms and constraints.

It’s easy to see how they do this–because they’re P-types, they are seen as decisive and strong. Because they’re S-types, they can sell the public on a lot of stuff. And because they’re BK-types, the stuff they sell the public on tends to turn out well. So when a consummate leader is in charge, it’s not so hard for the public to become convinced that institutional constraints are just an impediment to the prosperity and happiness the leader can and will bring about.

While there have been many politicians who have aspired to consummate leader status, few manage to truly achieve it. To bend and break norms, a politician has to be ridiculously successful across a wide array of policy areas and the leader’s show needs to be good enough to make a strong majority of people see that success and attribute it to the leader. In recent political history, the strongest consummate leader has been Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was viewed as a smashing success both domestically and internationally, enabling him to surmount the strong norm against running for president for more than two consecutive terms and nearly enabling him to pack the Supreme Court with his own supporters:

Late in his presidency he proposed a “second bill of rights“, which would have heavily modified the US constitution to guarantee rights to employment, a sufficient income, housing, healthcare, social security, education, and freedom from monopolies:

He did not live long enough to see this through, but the fact that constitutional reform on that scale was even up for discussion illustrates how supremely dominant Roosevelt was.

Occasionally a glorious oaf, gladhander, or used car salesman masquerades as a consummate leader, inevitably becoming a false prophet. If the leader has succeeded in bending or breaking institutions but then goes on to fail to deliver results, the outcome is invariably catastrophic. Adolf Hitler was that kind of politician. For this reason it’s safer to pick philosopher king types–if it turns out your philosopher king was just a sophist, a puppetmaster, or a swamp monster you can be assured that his inability to handle the show will prevent this from being concealed for too long, and it will almost certainly prevent the institutions from bending or breaking for him.