Yet again, I marvel at how much my class is happening at the perfect time – ah well, maybe I should rephrase that. I don’t see any perfection in isolationist and bellicose policies, exactly when we should be coming together to address planetary problems and promote peace – but for sure, it is an interesting time to be talking about political courage.

I was pleased to find out that at least a couple of my students are fans of The West Wing, a far more inspiring and uplifting view of politics than the recent, more cynical, fictional representations of the political realm like House of Cards. (For a refreshing display of presidential integrity, accompanied by suitably rousing music and dewy-eyed loyalty, see “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”.)

This week we look at political courage from several different perspectives – citizen courage, the courage to go into politics, and courage in political leadership.

(NOTE: I have tried my best to remain politically neutral in this blog post, not because I am neutral, but because this is a class, and not an appropriate forum for my personal views. There will be times and places when I make my views clear, but not on this blog, this week.)

Podcast here. Slideshow here.


Citizen courage

This ties in with our studies of intellectual courage (week 3) and nonconformity (week 9), in that citizens have often felt moved to stand up courageously for what they believe in the face of an oppressive regime.

The case studies we examined were of dissidents and Nobel Peace Prize winners Carl von Ossietzky, Andrei Sakharov, and Adolfo Esquivel.

Carl von Ossietzky was a journalist who exposed the clandestine German re-armament, and as a consequence was sent to concentration camps, and died of tuberculosis while still in prison.

Alva Myrdal
Alva Myrdal

Andrei Sakharov was a Soviet dissident and nuclear physicist, who turned activist after becoming concerned about the moral implications of his work on the hydrogen bomb. Increasingly outspoken against nuclear proliferation, he was sent to internal exile in the Soviet Union from 1980 until his release by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986.

Adolfo Esquivel is an Argentinian artist and pacifist who co-founded the Service, Peace and Justice Foundation and has stood up for human rights in Latin America despite repeated imprisonment and harassment from the authorities.

We also looked at the work of moral champions Norman Angell, Emily Greene Balch, and Alva Myrdal.

It seems that what all these individuals have in common is as follows:

nobel peace prize


Courage to go into politics

Politics can seem to many a uniquely unattractive career option. If you have a big ego and great ability, the money is much better in the City. If you don’t have a big ego, you don’t want to be around all those people who do.

Either way, you have to consistently strike an almost impossible balance between what you think is the right thing, what your party thinks is the right thing, and what your constituents think is the right thing. Get it wrong, and you end up compromised, demoted (or not promoted), or voted out.

The pages of history are littered with politicians who didn’t get it right – or, arguably they did get it right, but the public didn’t agree with them. A few examples:

Winston Churchill: legendary wartime prime minister, voted out of office at the end of the war as he wasn’t perceived as being the right person for the transition to peacetime.

Margaret Thatcher: after 11 years as prime minister, resigned after a leadership challenge from within her own party. (Love her or hate her, it’s hard not to admire her adherence to her beliefs.)


Zac Goldsmith: promised his Richmond constituents he would resign as Conservative MP if the third runway at nearby Heathrow got approval. It did, so he kept his promise, and stood again as an independent. His 30,000 majority was overturned and he lost the by-election.

And sometimes politicians face censure worse than being voted out of office:

Gabby Giffords: US Congresswoman shot in the head while meeting publicly with constituents. Survived, but left with serious brain injury.

Jo Cox: British MP shot and stabbed to death by a far-right fanatic during the height of Brexit in summer 2016.

Four US presidents shot and killed while in office -Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F Kennedy – and we Brits haven’t been much more compassionate towards our leaders, having beheaded a few monarchs along the way.

So just remind me – why would anyone want to go into politics?

It seems that women are particularly reluctant, with the exception of just a few countries – probably a combination of family-unfriendly schedules, and a perception (not entirely inaccurate) that politics is still something of an old boys’ club. The media don’t help – research shows that female politicians are judged by a different standard than their male colleagues, even to the extent of a different vocabulary being applied. The impressive Angela Merkel of Germany remains an exception, rather than the rule.

women in parliament

(And a very good document here in the Media Women’s Center’s Media Guide to Gender Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians – although does contain some adult language.)

Quotas can help – whether or not you agree with them in principle, they do work to get the ball rolling.

And the good news is that since the election of Donald Trump, the US has seen a major uptick in women interested in running for office, supported by organisations like EMILY’s List and She Should Run. Blessings in heavy disguise and all that.


Courage in political leadership

It could be debated whether we want to encourage courage in our political leaders. One politician’s courage can look like another person’s dogma.

courage desirable

And to hark back to the fictional Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister, courage can lose you elections. It’s hard to change the world (or even your own country) when you’ve been booted out of office.

decision making

In fact, when you look at all the conflicting pressures on an elected politician, we might almost start to feel some sympathy for them. It seems that whichever way they turn, they are bound to lose the support of somebody – their constituents, their party, their peers, their donors, or maybe even their own family and friends.

pressures on courage

Not only are they beholden to the relationships within which they operate, they are also creatures of their times. Being too far ahead or behind the wave of current opinion can make the difference between a glittering career and a tarnished one. And a politician who thrives in wartime may fall out of favour in peacetime (witness Winston Churchill), or simply pass their use-by date, as Margaret Thatcher found when she had vanquished the trade unions, and the single-mindedness that had got her thus far then became the cause of her downfall.

Of course, regardless of their competency or otherwise, they will get blamed for everything. Barack Obama said: “As president you’re held responsible for everything, but you don’t always have control of everything.”

And finally, there is that great paradox of democratically elected political leaders: as Tony Blair said onstage when he visited Yale in 2012 when I was here as a World Fellow:


And yet YES, we DO want courage in our political leaders. Unrealistic and idealistic as it may be, we admire Jed Bartlet for taking a stand for principle over pragmatism. The very fact that we are so often disappointed by our politicians indicates that, despite everything, we still have high hopes for them. We want to look up to them as role models, as protectors, as pseudo-parents who will ensure our world is orderly, secure, and fair. Despite our carping, complaining, and political satire, politicians still dominate Gallup’s charts of most admired men and women.


Ultimately, if we don’t like the politicians we’ve got, it’s time to find our courage and decide that, if you want a job done properly, best do it yourself. Time to get out of the peanut gallery and into the political arena.

So much more to be said on this, but this blog post is more than long enough already, so I had better stop before it turns into a book. I do just want to say one final thing: politics is important, but it is not life and death (generally). Both the US and the UK endured divisive political campaigns in 2016, and a lot of bitterness continues. We all need to have the moral and intellectual courage to see beyond a person’s political beliefs to the person themselves, and get curious as to why they voted as they did. Only then, with empathy and understanding, can we heal the rifts.

Do let me know what you think – would you ever go into politics? If not, why not? 


I just can’t resist finishing off with another classic moment from Yes Prime Minister.



YouTube           iTunes               RSS (Android users can enter the link into their podcast client and subscribe directly)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *