Donald Searing


principal investigator

Donald Searing
Professor, Political Science
Department of Political Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States

Donald D. Searing, a Burton Craige Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes on comparative politics, political psychology, and political elites. He has published a book that integrates these theoretical perspectives - Westminster’s World: Understanding Political Roles - and he has published articles on these subjects in The American Political Science Review, the British Journal of Political Science, and most major professional journals in the discipline. He is currently engaged in two research programs. One concerns the civic virtues of political leadership in liberal democracies. It investigates key motivations and skills that promote regime building, governing, accountability and representation. The other, which is nearing completion, and which has been pursued in collaboration with Professors Pamela Johnston Conover and Ivor Crewe, is a study of the civic side of citizenship in the United States and Great Britain. Both research projects combine quantitative with qualitative methodologies to address themes in democratic theory. Professor Searing has served on the Council of the American Political Science Association and on the editorial boards of the leading political science journals and has received a number of professional awards and honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship. When in Britain, he is based at the University of Essex, which has links with the political science department in Chapel Hill.


Pamela Johnston Conover
Burton Craige Distinguished Professor, Political Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Melanie C. Green
Assistant Professor, Psychology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Virtues and Vices of Liberal Democratic Leadership
John Stuart Mill argued that without appropriate character traits in political leaders good government will not automatically emerge from even the most carefully constructed constitutions. This project investigates the civic virtues and vices of liberal democratic leadership, key character traits that enable effective performances of politicians’ roles in regime building, governing, accountability and representation.

Moral virtues are desirable for their own sakes because they bring goodness of character to those who practice them. But politicians’ civic virtues primarily benefit others - citizens - by promoting good government and protecting the political community. The project draws upon virtue ethics, political theory and social, cognitive and organizational psychology to: (a) Identify key civic leadership virtues; (b) investigate their psychological structure and dynamics; (c) Explore their origins in pre-career and institutional learning; and (d) examine their consequences.

The project builds on the foundation of a largely unanalyzed psychological and institutional data set based on 3-5 hour transcribed interviews with 635 British Members of Parliament and candidates who were originally interviewed during the 1970s. These data, which include quantitative as well as qualitative materials, offer scales for traits such as Machiavellianism and tolerance for compromise, as well as detailed data on political learning during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. They have been supplemented by the researchers to create a forty-year longitudinal data set covering attitudes and behaviors across the entire span of the interviewees’ political careers. The final piece of the data collection consists of re-interviews with the 85 original interviewees who are still alive and available.

There has been very little empirical research on the topics that the investigators have been studying, particularly from the viewpoint of identifying and analyzing character traits as civic virtues of liberal democratic leadership. Thus, the conceptualization and operationalization of these traits is an innovation, while the theoretical development and construction of research designs to test the hypotheses are steps in new directions. When the data set is complete, the investigators will probe the construct validity of the character traits and investigate the project’s hypotheses about their roots in pre-career and career learning and their consequences for actions that shape liberal democratic institutions and policies.

Preliminary observations about patterns emerging from the data with regard to two of the character traits, ambition and integrity, include the following. For ambition, the strongest public service orientations appear to be associated with childhood experiences in political families. The project’s distinctions between desires for office primarily to benefit the public and more self-serving motivations are intertwined in the minds of these politicians much more than the investigators expected, but these distinctions are nonetheless recognized and discussed by the politicians themselves when they evaluate one another’s careers. With regard to integrity, all of the re-interviewees had examples of politicians who compromised conscientiously held principles. Some said that this was not necessary to achieve objectives that serve the public interest, whereas others claimed it definitely was sometimes necessary and gave persuasive instances. As for the need to be economical with the truth in order to serve the public interest, there were again many acknowledgements and many examples. There are strong indications that these attitudes are shaped by experience in ministerial careers.

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