Presidential Politics & Personality Type
By Ross Reinhold (INTJ) December, 2010
It’s fun (and sometimes educational) to speculate on the personality type affiliation of prominent people in the media, entertainment, and politics. Most Type Watchers have believed former President Clinton to prefer ENFP. Former President George Bush is often nominated as an example of an ESTJ type; current President Barack Obama is thought to be a ENFJ type. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been often typed as an INTJ (as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is thought to be an ESTP type. (ENFJ=Obama vs ESTP=Palin - - - only one letter in common - no wonder there are few people who appreciate both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
While sociological and economic factors are often cited as important determiners of a person’s political views and allegiances, I think a voter’s personality type can also exert a powerful influence. And unlike sociological and economic factors this important influence on voting behavior has a genetic basis. By the time a toddler reaches three years old his or her personality type pattern has begun to take the shape that will persist throughout that person’s life. This emerging pattern may also strongly influence their voting choice twenty years later as an adult.
While it seems intuitive that a given type would vote for a candidate who is perceived to match ones’ own type, most people don’t know enough about personality typology to make such a judgment. It is not the “type match” that makes a difference but rather the values the candidate espouses or represents. While there are universal human and societal values, it appears certain personality types are hard-wired to embrace some important values over others. Two researchers who have investigated these links are Scott Golden and Donald Johnson (1990). They developed a value inventory based on the Rokeach Value Survey and administered it to adults who had taken the MBTI ® and knew their personality types. The inventory presented 21 important societal values (see table 1) and required survey participants to rank order them. Most of us would agree that all these values are important to a civilized society. Like motherhood, apple pie, and baseball we hold these values in high esteem. Yet when push comes to shove, which do we place on a higher plane? This exercise, which forces us to make choices we don’t have to make in the normal course of things, can be quite revealing.
There are many interesting results in the Golden/Johnson research. Returning to Presidential politics, let’s look at some contrasts between ESTJ and ENFJ types. The research results found there were a few values like "being honest' or "being responsible" that most all types ranked at or near the top of the list. But a little further down the line there were some sharp differences. For example. Of the 21 instrumental values, ESTJ types ranked “being logical” #6 while ENFJ types ranked this value considerably lower at #17. On the other hand “being loving” is #4 on the ENFJ list while it is #14 on the ESTJ list. In general types who prefer Feeling ranked “being loving” much higher than “being logical” while those types who preferred Thinking ranked “being logical” much higher than “being loving.” Some other values that correlated with Feeling (vs. Thinking) are “being loyal,” “being helpful,” and “being forgiving.” On the other hand some other values that correlated with Thinking (vs. Feeling) are “being capable,” “being independent,” and “being ambitious.”
So an ESTJ candidate who projected an image of being logical, capable, independent, and ambitious (along with universal values of honesty and responsibility) would likely capture the votes of other ESTJs plus the votes of many of other Thinking personality types. Former President George Bush may have lost some of these natural voting allies after incidents like Katrina and the financial meltdown cast doubt on his "capability." Rumors, evidence, and suspicions that he was a figurehead for Dick Cheney, i.e. that he was not “independent thinking” would also lose him support among his natural type allies.
An ENFJ candidate who projected an image of being loving, loyal, helpful, and forgiving (in addition to being honest and responsible) would likely capture the votes of other ENFJ types plus the votes of many of other “Feeling” personality types. Candidate Obama presented himself well as a person who cared about others, particularly those in need. He remained loyal to his friends even when some of them were associations that had clear negatives among many voters (i.e. his refusal to throw Reverend Wright under the bus). But he also scored points by reflecting values or characteristics not necessarily correlated with his personality type. He projected competence and “capability” and he demonstrated “independence” with his theme of “change” and of being opposed to “politics as usual” in Washington. His intellectual demeanor and composed manner of presenting ideas also suggested he is a logical person. One might argue he also showed “ambition” by serving in Congress for only two years before running for President (Most candidates with modest national political experience whose star rises so fast would realistically aspire to no higher than the Vice-Presidential slot).
So many of the values strongly associated with ESTJs became part of Obama’s mantel plus all of his natural values associated with NF types. In terms of population ST voters clearly outnumber NF voters so just appealing to your natural base isn’t going to get an ENFJ elected. You need to stretch outside your type box . . . and President Obama was quite able in doing this.
These same atypical-ENFJ characteristics (logical, capable, and independent) that helped garner President Obama’s broad appeal among the electorate could also explain his later decline in popularity after two years in office. Instead of remaining independent and detached he managed to become deeply mired in partisan politics. Persistent economic and employment stagnation plus the difficulties of the war in Afghanistan helped him lose points on the capability meter. Continuing to blame the previous administration for current problems after his first year in office began to lose credibility with some, i.e. becoming an illogical argument. So the ground gained by recognizing and reflecting values outside his natural type box were lost when he was not able to sustain those values after he took office.
The media suggests elections are or ought to be about candidates’ positions, programs, and solutions . . . not personality. The strong associations between aspects of personality type and political affiliations/political views suggests otherwise. And perhaps this also explains why “negative” campaign advertising, even though disliked by the majority of the public, seem to work. Personality, temperament, and character do matter. Yet even when the candidates confine themselves to talking about positions and programs, I think their communication tends to disclose values as well as personality styles.
OK all this is interesting, maybe even fascinating. Personality and Values play an important role in elections. But are there any other take-aways? One is something I referred to earlier, that these elements have a biological basis. As a voter, my education and cultural experiences may have less to do with my political leanings than the biological material I inherited from my parents. My nature is biased towards trusting and understanding some personality types over others. I am programmed to become polarized, not just because of the issues, but at a very instinctual level. Even though I may understand a good deal about personality type and appreciate the value of type differences, my nature is to place greater trust in people whose mental make-up is similar to my own - can’t escape that.
A person of a type quite different than my own who can reach outside of his or her type box to reflect values similar to my own and in essence talk my language will also have appeal. Former President Clinton had this ability; he could make folks from a broad spectrum of types comfortable with him.
Political campaign managers may try to package their candidate in such a way to show these multiple faces of personality type to broaden the appeal of their candidate. I think, however, it is important for us - the voters - to avoid being overly cynical when we observe a candidate having more than one face to their personality. Being able to work outside your box is a part of the maturing of personality, developing your personality type. The yin-yang of the patterns of type equip us to reach across these boundaries of type.
An example. While Sensing and Thinking are the leading components of an ESTJ personality type, every person of this type also has an Intuitive and Feeling nature. In the ESTJ case his Thinking nature is naturally extraverted which makes values associated with Thinking much more evident. His counter-balancing Feeling nature is naturally introverted and thus hidden and masked by that leading Thinking. An ESTJ may really care and be compassionate, yet he is stuck with his Thinking nature as his public spokesman. Whenever we encounter a person whose Thinking, Feeling, Sensing, or Intuitive nature seems to be out front running the show, realize there is a second face that is opposite and naturally hidden. As people mature these hidden natures often grow and their expression becomes more comfortable. But learning how to do this without seeming two-faced can be difficult to accomplish. How does a George Bush show his compassionate and loving side while continuing to be true to his ESTJ self? How does he do that without seeming two-faced or insincere? It takes both skill and experience and is much easier to state in theory than it is to accomplish in practice. When Bush ran first ran for office (and before 9/11) the theme of “compassionate conservatism” was to be a hallmark of his Presidency. I think that was a true part of his nature and a natural maturation of personality type. But being forced into being a war-time President pushed him back into his basic ESTJ style and the core values associated with that style.
As voters we can also learn to reach outside our type boxes. It is natural to place greater trust in a person whose mental make-up is similar to our own, yet we can learn to see others more broadly, appreciating the strengths that people of types different from our own can bring to an office. We can also learn how to spot honest type development outside of a candidate’s natural box and what might be false packaging. We can also learn to spot candidates who seem to be stuck in their box. I believe in politics and in other endeavors early and persistent success in a certain arena can have the effect of retarding a person’s type development. Why change what works for you?
Unfortunately politics and political life seem as polarized as ever. Such conflict forces people back into the more cardboard versions of themselves, unable to reach outside of one’s basic type box. An ESTJ becomes all STJ with no apparent positive NFP facet. An INFP can only see the colors her type is naturally inclined to see. An INTJ only relates to the future vision that is so clear to him and looks past the present realities.
The next few years in US politics will be an interesting time. Crucial Sensing values like family security, responsibility, happiness, and a comfortable life are being threatened by the rising debt, a sluggish economy and widespread unemployment and under-employment. Since people who prefer Sensing are in the majority, concepts that engage the intuitive mind like the “green economy” and “climate change” as well as other futuristic, intellectual, and imaginative programs will have a tough time gaining broad acceptance as long as Sensing values are in so much peril.
Have some thoughts about politics and type? You can write me at Ross@PersonalityPathways.com
Boozer, R. (2009). Psychological Type in the Political Arena. Bulletin of Psychological Type, 32(3), 38-42
Golden, S. & Johnson, D. (1990) Values of American Men & Women Presentation handout at a conference of the Association for Psychological Type
Rokeach, M. Rokeach Value Survey published by CPP, Inc., Palo Alto, CA
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