Getting it, Spending it, Losing it: Exploring Political Capital
21 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2014
Date Written: April 12, 2012
Political capital is frequently used as a short hand for the diverse range of attributes and advantages a leader brings with them to power and develops in office. Compared to other forms of ‘capital’ it remains under theorised. Since Pierre Bourdieu first outlined it, scholars have viewed political capital either as being synonymous with personal skills or a description of wider contextual attributes, particularly the link between leader and public. It is frequently seen as analogous to financial capital: a political leader has a fixed stock of capital that they can spend, hoard, fritter or gamble.
This paper takes a first look at the literature and applies it to ‘t Hart’s approaches to leadership study, drawing on examples predominantly from US and UK politics. Following Lopez (2002) it takes the view that political capital is both ‘personal’ (in terms of their own skills) and ‘political’ (in terms of events, institutional resources and context). A politician with skills and attributes can use this to shape the context in which they operate, creating a ‘positive multiplier’ as the personal and political reinforce each other. Where events can also overwhelm leaders and expose flaws and personality weaknesses, a ‘negative multiplier’ takes effect.
However, unlike money in the bank, political capital is finite and subject to depreciation as part of ‘a natural trajectory’ whereby support and power is lost over time. Yet this trajectory is not always uniform. The loss is inevitable but the rate and shape may not be. Often leaders begin with high levels that slowly dwindle but some leaders build it more slowly. The most unfortunate never have it. The article concludes with a look at a selection of politicians who managed to turn around an initial lack of political capital or even regain it.
Keywords: Leadership, Political Capital
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