Proverbial politics

Do quotable lines about politics tend to be correct?

The axioms of the last age are the fallacies of the present, the principles which save one generation may be the ruin of the next. There is nothing abiding in political science but the necessity of truth, purity, and justice. - Salisbury

If we have gathered a lot of wisdom about how politics works, we might expect it to be reflected in popular proverbs or sayings. To see whether this is the case, I browsed through The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (Jay 2012) as well as some online collections of aphorisms and sayings. I was interested both in what gets classified as proverbial or quotable knowledge and how well this knowledge has been confirmed by research.

To my knowledge there has been very little study of this proverbial knowledge, though in the more distant past arguments were conducted via proverb. A recent exception is Jon Elster (2015) who has considered how proverbial folk wisdom often describes social scientific mechanisms in the sense of “frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns.” He doesn’t see proverbs as general laws, but rather as mutually exclusive pairs which are triggered under certain conditions. Thus, “opposites attract” and “birds of a feather flock together” both describe mechanisms and it is the job of social science to determine where and when they apply and with what effects.

My analysis in this post isn’t so much of this general folk wisdom, but rather of sayings that are meant to have practical applications in the distinctive circumstances of politics. That is why I think they are a bit more susceptible to empirical confirmation than the sort of proverbs that Elster focuses on. In fact, my selection rule was to pick sayings that could be formulated in falsifiable or testable ways. What I was looking for was quotations that described how politics actually works according to important political thinkers or actors in the past.

The main wisdom that emerges from this exercise is one that is both relatively conservative and approximates a realpolitik and rational choice vision of the world. Thus, among the best-known lines, we see that:

  • Revolutions turn out badly (and end up moving in a conservative direction)

  • Fear and hatred are driving forces in politics

  • Order and coercion are the fundamental elements of politics

  • Political actors are self-interested and power hungry

  • Power corrupts

Interestingly, these are similar to the main results in a post I wrote on the intuitions of political scientists.

What surprised me about this quotable wisdom was how little of it described the day-to-day challenges of political life - the strategies best suited for navigating institutions or the subtleties of human psychology. This wisdom exists in the history of political thought, but is perhaps just less quotable. I also expected more quotes that encapsulated current research far in advance. After all, there is little new under the sun. While some of these quotes could be (and presumably have been) used as epigrams of research papers, most seemed relatively disconnected from the kind of research political scientists conduct today.

In terms of the contemporary truth value of these sayings, the results are mixed. Best might be the traditional wisdom on the importance of order and perhaps the dangers of revolution. More problematic are views on regime types and expectations that age or power can change one’s character. 

Of course, these problems, particularly with types of regimes, may be attributed to different circumstances at the time when the lines were written or uttered. As Salisbury’s epigram above indicates, the nature of politics may be changing over time. Most of our current knowledge of politics is based on data and evidence from approximately the past century and one could argue that contemporary politics is very different from politics in the past, when most of their lines were written, not least in the unexpected spread of democracy and prosperity and their endurance. Politics under conditions of autocracy and Malthusian economics likely inspires a very different kind of knowledge than what counts for wisdom today.


  • When you undertake to run a revolution, the difficulty is not to make it go; it is to hold it in check. - de Mirabeau

  • There was reason to fear that the Revolution, like Saturn, might devour in turn each one of her children. - Vergniaud

  • Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder. - GB Shaw

  • Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. - Camus

  • You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution. - Chesterton

  • All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the State. - Camus

  • Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. - Orwell

The subject of revolutions is relatively popular among quotable lines. The most frequently expressed sentiment is that revolutions become oppressive as noted in the quotes above. This prediction is a bit hard to assess given the paucity of revolutions and the lack of a good counterfactual (revolutions happen in regimes that are already oppressive, so is the proper comparison with the continuation of the ancien regime or with some hypothetical revolution that lives up to its ideals). Yet, the history of revolutions suggests that these predictions have some truth. As Goldstone (2001) puts it, “Revolutionaries frequently claim that they will reduce inequality, establish democracy, and provide economic prosperity. In fact, the record of actual revolutions is rather poor in regard to all of these claims… Until very recently, revolutions have invariably failed to produce democracy.”

  • After a revolution, you see the same men in the drawing-room, and within a week the same flatterers. - Lord Halifax

  • Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any others. - Orwell

  • The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution. - Arendt

A number of quotes express the idea that revolutionaries become conservative upon taking power. Again, this expectation is a bit hard to test given that the counterfactual seems to be some kind of permanent revolution. I would consider these perhaps tautological given that if a revolution has genuine aims and is able to achieve them, it is inevitable that it would become more conservative in the sense of resisting further change.

  • Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. - Aristotle

  • It is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution... The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which immediately preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform. - Tocqueville

Aristotle opined on the causes of revolution in the first quotation above. While he is right that revolutions tend to occur in poor countries, most poor countries do not have revolutions and as Tocqueville famously observed of the French Revolution, it may be an improvement of living conditions that precipitates a revolution. Recent theories, however, have not focused on the economy as a key cause of revolutions and as Goldstone (2001) puts it, “a short and consistent list of the factors leading to revolution appears to be a chimera.”


  • Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms. - Aristotle

  • Republics have a longer life and enjoy better fortune than principalities, because they can profit by their greater internal diversity. They are better able to meet emergencies. - Machiavelli

  • Republics end in luxury; monarchies in poverty. - Montesquieu

  • Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide. - John Adams

  • Liberty begets anarchy, anarchy leads to despotism, and despotism brings about liberty once again. Millions of human beings have perished without being able to make any of these systems triumph. - Balzac

  • No tyrant need fear till men begin to feel confident in each other. - Aristotle

A fair number of quotable lines concern the lifespans and desirability of regime types as the above examples show. Democracies (or alternatively republics) are both praised (Machiavelli) and derided (Aristotle, Gibbon, Adams). Political scientists have accumulated good evidence that democratic regimes are relatively stable and good for human welfare (Gerring et al. 2005, 2012), though these lines were written long before modern democracies emerged and thus referred to something different than modern representative regimes. The idea that there are cycles of regimes as suggested by Aristotle and Balzac doesn’t find much favor in the literature, though Hale (2005) has recently tried to revive the idea (albeit not the cycles described here). While difficult to test, Aristotle’s prediction about the confidence of society finds some support in tipping point models of revolutions a la Kuran (1997) where citizens revolt when they are confident that others are with them. Overall, then, we don’t find much contemporary support for these propositions; most seem bound to their time.

  • Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty. - Edward Gibbon

  • Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. - Hamilton

Gibbon’s connection between liberty and corruption is precisely reversed in the contemporary era where democracies tend to be less corrupt (Treisman 2007). Perhaps he was right about the ancient world, but I am skeptical. Hamilton’s line is frequently quoted because everyone teaches Federalist #10, but I would suggest it is untrue. Unfree regimes also have faction, just consider where ethnic conflicts are most severe. It is noteworthy that the Chinese government embraces this idea; they argue that democracy creates artificial divisions and thus is an inferior form of government.

  • I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. - Samuel Johnson

  • For forms of government let fools contest; Whate'er is best administered is best. - Pope

  • Democracy substitutes elections by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. - Shaw

  • Without democracy socialism would be worth nothing, but democracy is worth a great deal even when it is not socialist. - AJP Taylor

  • All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy. - Al Smith

A handful of quotes mention that regime type is unimportant or epiphenomenal, though Taylor disagrees. Johnson’s line might have some truth if the outcome is simply personal happiness; wealth is probably the more important determinant though it is linked with democracy. Similarly, competent state administration is important but it is also connected with democracy. Taylor is right that democracy is associated with many positive outcomes as noted above. Smith, however, may be going too far in his optimism as even successful democracies put limits on democratic decisionmaking.

  • When a nation abolishes aristocracy, centralization follows as a matter of course. - Jefferson

There is some truth to this if Jefferson is referring to the absolutist age when monarchs limited the aristocracy precisely in order to centralize power. The aristocracy did serve as a countervailing force to monarchs. However, the same would apply to any elimination of a veto point. Further, in many democracies the eliminated aristocracy was often replaced by another veto point in the form of an upper house or senate.

  • The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and governments to gain ground. - Jefferson

While Jefferson is right that the size of government has increased in the modern era, it is less obvious that this was at the cost of liberty. In fact, just about all forms of freedom have mostly expanded. One might argue higher taxes limit some forms of economic freedom, but I don’t think this was Jefferson’s prime concern.


  • I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. - Hobbes

  • Nature has left this tincture in the blood/That all men would be tyrants if they could. - Daniel Defoe

  • Whoso taketh in hand to frame any state or government ought to presuppose that all men are evil, and at occasions will show themselves so to be. - Walter Raleigh

  • It is a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave. - Hume

  • Politicians neither love nor hate. Interest, not sentiment, directs them. - Phillip Chesterton

  • There is no friendship at the top. - Lloyd George

The assumption of personal self-interest is a common one among political scientists in line with the quotations above. It forms the basis of much rational choice theorizing about politics (though rational choice can incorporate other motives). It is also an assumption that is difficult to test. 

  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  • It's a maxim not to be despised 'Though peace be made, yet it's interest that keeps peace.' - Cromwell

  • We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow. - Palmerston

  • Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong; it is a geographical expression. - Bismarck

  • No nation has friends, only interests. - de Gaulle

These quotations in various ways express the realist logic that states mainly pursue their own interests. This logic is general enough that it is difficult to assess its truth and alternative schools of international relations suggest that interests are ambiguous and constructed rather than given and that similarities in culture and values can lead to lasting cooperation. Unfortunately, like self-interest, these assumptions defy clear testing.


  • It has eternally been observed that any man who has power is led to abuse it. - Montesquieu

  • Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. - William Pitt

  • The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse. - Burke

  • Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. - Acton

  • It has been said that power tends to corrupt, but that loss of power tends to corrupt absolutely. - Dean Rusk

Acton’s line about the corrupting effect of power may be the most cited line about politics of all. It is a bit unclear if the idea is that the power changes the character of the ruler as the text seems to imply or simply allows them to act badly. (He follows that line with a discussion of bad acts committed by otherwise admired leaders like Elizabeth I.) While there is likely an association between the degree of a ruler’s power and the number of bad acts that they commit, it is unclear if the association stems from power corrupting rulers or corrupt rulers trying to maximize their power. I’d lean toward the latter. There is good evidence that politicians (like citizens) hold relatively consistent attitudes across their political careers - ie, that power doesn’t change them - though these are ideological positions more than corruption (Poole 2007). Possibly the most relevant test of these propositions was the Stanford Prison Experiment, but it has recently been called into question (Le Texier 2019).

  • What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body. - Jefferson

  • The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. - John Adams

  • And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. - Acton

While it is almost tautologically true that unfree and undemocratic regimes do concentrate powers, there are free and democratic regimes where power is relatively concentrated. Consider the UK which has been called an elected dictatorship. Some like Lijphart (2012) have argued that greater division of power in democracies leads to “kinder and gentler” government, but others including Persson and Tabellini (2005) find that these veto points bring costs as well. Gerring et al. (2005) argue that the best results come from a system where power is concentrated in the center but where multiple parties are represented in parliament. 


  • The two parties which divide the state, the part of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. - Emerson

Does politics mainly consist of two sides, which Emerson calls conservatism and innovation? Many works have found left-right divisions (not necessarily equivalent to his poles) to be fairly common across the world, though the content generally concerns the role of the state and redistribution more than conservatism and innovation (Noel and Therien 2008). Others have found that it sometimes takes more than one dimension to explain political divisions (Benoit and Laver 2006). Similarly, Inglehart (2006) finds that countries can be categorized on two dimensions, one that spans from traditional to secular-rational values and another that spans from survival to self-expression values. Each might correspond with Emerson’s distinction but in a different way.

  • I often think it’s comical/How Nature always does contrive/That every boy and every gal/That's born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative! - WS Gilbert

  • A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged.

  • A liberal is a conservative who's been arrested. - Wolfe

The quotes above posit either that liberalism/conservatism are in-born/deep-seated traits or the product of circumstances. All of them are fairly glib, but the question is a good one. Ideological tendencies do tend to be relatively stable over the life-course which would favor the in-born (or at least a socialization view). This has recently been called “partisan hearts and minds” and seems to describe the American experience fairly well (Green et al. 2004). Consistent with the mugging view, Wasow (2020) shows that violent protests hurt the fortunes of the Democratic Party in the 1960s, though again the general stability of individual preferences casts doubt on whether personal experiences consistently change political orientations as opposed to short-term voting behavior.

  • At twenty everyone is a republican. - Alphonse de Lamartine

  • Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.

A couple of well-known sayings link ideology with age: young people are (or should be?) more leftist or democratic and older people more rightist or conservative. Peterson et al. (2020), however, write that “Despite the broad acceptance of the folk wisdom, in the scholarly literature the theoretical foundations linking aging to shifts in political attitudes are somewhat inconsistent, and empirical support is, at best, mixed.” Their own analysis finds a “general pattern of consistency with occasional, mild conservatizing tendencies on those fairly rare instances when stability is not complete.” If this seems surprising, just consider how much more liberal public opinion has become in the last 50 years. If you had stayed in one place on an issue like LGBT rights, your opinions would almost be beyond the pale today.

  • In happy states, the Conservative party must rule upon the whole a much longer time than their adversaries. In well-framed politics, innovation - great innovation that is - can only be occasional. If you are always altering your house, it is a sign either that you have a bad house, or that you have an excessively restless disposition - there is something wrong somewhere. - Bagehot

  • Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people's money. - Thatcher

The main finding of one review article on partisan cycles - that is, changes between left and right-wing governments - goes like this:

As discovered repeatedly above, however, cycles induced by electoral and partisan incentives receive strongest empirical support when researchers recognize their context conditionality. Franzese (2002a) summarizes this argument thusly: ‘Incentives and capacity for, and effects of, electioneering or partisaneering should vary predictably across policies and across domestic and international political-economic institutional, structural, and strategic contexts.’ (Franzese and Jusko 2006).

To put it in layman’s terms, the results are a mess and lack any simple relationships. One can sometimes find patterns. For example, contra Bagehot the Democrats appear to outperform the Republicans on the economy in the US (Bartels 2008) even producing lower budget deficits, but such results tend not to hold up under closer examination (Campbell 2011). One of the main problems is that left and right-wing parties come to power in different circumstances, so it is hard to compare their performance.

Order and Coercion

  • During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. - Hobbes

  • Good order is the foundation of all good things. - Burke

  • Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government. - Burke

  • The word 'freedom' means for me not a point of departure but a genuine point of arrival. The point of departure is defined by the word 'order'. Freedom cannot exist without the concept of order. - Metternich

  • Every Communist must grasp the truth, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.' - Mao

  • A political man can have as his aim the realization of freedom, but he has no means to realize it other than through violence. - Sartre

A recognition of the importance of order and the state’s monopoly on coercion as a way to keep order might be seen as constitutive of the political science view of the world. Most famous is Huntington’s (1968) argument that the degree of government is more important than the form of government. Research on the baleful effects of weak or failed states tends to support his argument. Most of the quotes above on coercion seem to recognize this truth. But strong states can be oppressive. A recent contribution by Acemoglu and Robinson (2020) argues for a middle ground where a strong state is necessary for liberty, but it needs to be balanced with a strong society.

Political culture

  • Every nation has the government it deserves. - de Maistre

  • A constitution that is made for all nations is made for none. - de Maistre

  • What do men need in order to remain free? A taste for freedom. Do not ask me to analyze that sublime taste; it can only be felt. It has a place in every great heart which God has prepared to receive it; it fills and inflames it. To try to explain it to those inferior minds who have never felt it is to waste time. - Tocqueville

  • Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive, easy to govern, but impossible to enslave. - Lord Brougham

  • Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever. - Macauley

The first three quotations above seem to imply that a nation’s culture has important effects on its politics, though Macauley throws some cold water on these arguments by arguing that cultures can and do change. The effect of political culture is controversial among political scientists and its study is relatively underdeveloped. Most would agree with Macauley that it is malleable, but would tend to be skeptical of its influence. My sense is that Henrich’s (2020) recent work (albeit in anthropology) will lead to a revival of interest in the impact of political culture. Research from the modernization school suggested that education and economic development may have positive effects on support for democracy as Brougham suggests (Inglehart and Welzel 2005).

The middle way

  • I agree with you that in politics the middle way is none at all. - John Adams

  • In a confrontation with the politics of power, the soft centre has always melted away. - Lord Hailsham

  • There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. - Jim Hightower

  • Standing in the middle of the road is dangerous. You get knocked down by traffic from both sides. - Thatcher

All of these quotes challenge Aristotle on the virtues of moderation. Each of them colorfully lays out the “wisdom” that one should take a side and not stake out a position in the center. I put wisdom in quotes because American political science has found that at least in the US, moderation is typically helpful to candidates in general elections, though this advantage may be disappearing (Utych 2020). Theoretically, the median voter theorem suggests that many electoral systems will choose the candidate who is preferred by the median voter. In parliamentary systems, there is evidence that parties occupying the median of the ideological space are more likely to hold the premiership in coalition governments (Glasgow et al. 2011) as well as successful cases of politicians achieving success by moving to the center (eg, Tony Blair’s New Labour or the Neue Mitte in Germany). The advice to take a side, however, does jibe with research which finds that voters like politicians who have principles and do not flip flop (Fearon 1999), but centrism is not equivalent to a lack of principles.


  • Let them hate, so long as they fear. - Accius

  • This leads to a debate: is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The answer is that it is desirable to be both, but because it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two. - Machiavelli

  • Fear is the foundation of most governments. - J.Q. Adams

The beneficial effects of fear for the survival of leaders is frequently cited, especially in Machiavelli’s version. Is it true? This one is hard to test as there is no specified level of fear which keeps the population in check (much less a way to measure it or to compare it to love). Scholars of communist regimes do note that the relaxation of constraints under Gorbachev made the overthrow of the regime possible (for example, Kuran 1997). Against this hypothesis, one might note that among authoritarian regimes, personalist ones with the fewest sources of legitimacy beyond fear have relatively short lifespans compared to single-party regimes who can justify their rule in other ways (though they do last longer than military regimes who often stand down once they have restored order) (Geddes 1999). Fear might also be more useful at the elite level where party or national leaders use fear to keep politicians of their party in line.


  • Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds. - Henry Brooks Adams

  • Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed. - Bertrand Russell

  • Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody. - Franklin P. Adams

Soroka (2014) has made the most general case for the role of negativity in politics. He points to the impact of negative traits on presidential voting and deteriorating economic sentiment on government approval along with the preference for and greater effects of negative news. While the quotations above may be too unequivocal, they get at a truth.


  • I believe that without party Parliamentary government is impossible. - Disraeli

  • When in that House MPs divide/If they've a brain and cerebellum too/They have to leave that brain outside/And vote just as their leaders tell em to. - WS Gilbert

  • If you want to get along, go along. - Sam Rayburn

Political scientists have long recognized the importance of parties to the functioning of democracy and particularly parliamentary democracy as Disraeli notes. The commonness of party line voting in parliamentary systems noted by Gilbert supports this view (Bowler et al. 1999). This is due to a variety of merruptans of discipline not to mention common interests among party representatives (Kam 2014). These are the same reasons that Rayburn’s advice mostly rings true as a way to rise in Congress.


  • Wars are popular. Contractors make profits; the aristocracy glean honor. - Ramsay Macdonald

  • There never has been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk could not have been prevented... The common man, I think, is the great protection against war. - Ernest Bevin

These competing quotes suggest that war is both popular and potentially unpopular. Appropriately there are conflicting literatures on this point. A traditional literature suggests that democratic publics are skeptical of war a la Bevin because it pays the price, but Caverley (2014) argues that economic inequality and military technical change mean that voters now pay few costs from war and thus can be more supportive a la Macdonald. Zaller (1992) meanwhile argues that the public follows their party leaders in support for war.

  • War cannot be avoided; it can only be postponed to the other`s advantage. - Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s advice finds some resonance in preemptive theories of war and theories of Thuycidides’ trap (Allison 2017), however, for states that are growing relatively more powerful, it does make sense to wait. Machiavelli’s advice might be seen as a way to counteract a natural human tendency to avoid risky choices rather than a universal rule.


  • One of the nuisances of the ballot is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means. - Salisbury

Salisbury’s line finds support in the conventional wisdom among election scholars that a presidential mandate is anything but obvious, most famously Dahl’s (1990) “The Myth of the Presidential Mandate”. This is not to say that elected officials don’t try to claim a mandate and under certain circumstances they may even succeed, but these claims are always contested (Grossback et al. 2006).

  • As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

There are various versions of this line with other states in place of Maine (as well as a parody version - “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont”). In fact, there are no states that have consistently voted for the winning presidential candidate. By my count, the current leaders are Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who voted correctly for the last four presidents.


  • If you want to raise a certain cheer in the House of Commons, make a general panegyric on economy; if you want to invite a sure defeat, propose a particular saving. - Bagehot

  • Everyone is always in favor of general economy and particular expenditure. - Anthony Eden

Bagehot and Eden’s lines nicely express an idea that Pierson (1993) refers to as policy feedback. Once spending programs are introduced they create supporters, often organized ones, who are harmed when that spending is cut. This effect is exacerbated by negativity bias - losses are greeted with more opposition than equivalent gains are greeted with support.

Public Choice

  • Parliament is a potent engine, and its enactments must always do something , but they very seldom do what the originators of these enactments meant. Therefore most legislation will have the effect of surrounding the industry which it touches with precautions and investigations, inspections and regulations, in which it will be slowly enveloped and stifled. - Salisbury

  • A bureaucracy is sure to think that its duty is to augment official power, official business, or official members, rather than to leave free the energies of mankind; it overdoes the quantity of government, as well as impairs its quality. - Bagehot

The Salisbury and Bagehot lines above succinctly encapsulate the public choice wisdom that political actors are led by self-interest and thus can’t be presumed to act in the public’s interest. The debate would be to what extent and where this wisdom applies and whether (and where) these harms outweigh the benefits. It is worth noting that this literature also implies, contra Salisbury, that bureaucracies tend to be captured by special interests and produce regulations for the benefit of that industry (though at the expense of competition).


  • Faction seldom leaves a man honest, however it might find him. - Samuel Johnson

  • You can't adopt politics as a profession, and remain honest. - Louis McHenry Howe

These lines have something in common with Weber’s ethic of responsibility where politicians need to focus on consequences rather than being good Christians and letting the chips fall where they may. Political scientists drink up this point like mother’s milk. Whether it is true that politicians are less honest than other professions is one that seems right, though I’m not aware that it has been tested. Might they be as honest as any breed of salesman? Moreover, politicians are punished for breaking promises which incentivizes them to tell the truth (Stokes 2001). Indeed, the conventional wisdom that politicians usually break their promises is largely mistaken despite what citizens believe (Thomson et al. 2017).

Money and Politics

  • The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. - Locke

  • Politics is the art of turning influence into affluence. - Philander Chase Johnson

Locke’s quotation buys a little too much into his social contract theory of government. Research on early states also seems to belie this claim (Scott 2017). More testable is Chase’s quote that I interpret as a claim that politicians tend to use office to enrich themselves. Diermeier et al (2005) find that experience in the US Congress does increase post-Congress wages but these increases are not large enough to explain decisions to serve (indicating that non-pecuniary benefits like policy or perks are important). There has been some evidence that members of Congress earn above market returns in the stock market (Ziobrowski et al. 2004), but these results have not held up (Eggers and Hainmueller 2013). Eggers and Hainmuller (2009) meanwhile found that Conservative MPs in the UK greatly enriched themselves through outside jobs, but this did not apply to Labour MPs. Of course, in less democratic countries there are many cases of politicians using office to enrich themselves; Putin and Orban are recent examples. In short, our evidence for enrichment is mixed.


  • The best way to suppose what may come is to remember what is past. - Lord Halifax

  • You can never plan the future by the past. - Edmund Burke

Tetlock’s (2016) work on prediction suggests that Halifax might be more correct than Burke in that superpredictors tend to start with baserates - ie, the frequency of a particular event in the past - and an extrapolation of recent trends usually beats most predictors. Yet, baserates are not the end of prediction and good predictors then take into account other factors that might affect the future.

Middle class

  • The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes. - Aristotle

  • Where some people are very wealthy and others have nothing, the result will be either extreme democracy or absolute oligarchy, or despotism will come from either of those excesses. - Aristotle

Aristotle’s praise of the middle class and worry about inequality find resonance in a long line of political science research from modernization theory (Lipset 1959) and Barrington Moore (1966) to current work on inequality and democracy, but there are some skeptics (see the works reviewed in Ziblatt 2006). Latin Americanists have argued that the working class was more important for democratization (Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens 1992) and new work claims that the middle class in middle-income countries (especially those employed by the state) is less democratically-inclined than other classes (Rosenfeld 2020).


  • Mankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination. Were they to be in this pretty state of equality, they would soon degenerate into brutes. - Samuel Johnson

The recent book The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett 2011) claims that inequality tends to be associated mostly with negative outcomes. While it has come under considerable criticism for sloppy work with data (Snowdon 2010), I am not aware of work that would make the opposite causal claim as Johnson does. Happiness research similarly does not single out inequality or subordination as an important correlate of happiness.


  • In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman. - Thatcher

Recent work by the likes of Anzia and Berry (2011) and others does seem to vindicate Thatcher’s view that female politicians are more competent, though the evidence on their greater effectiveness in the US Congress is more ambiguous (Volden et al. 2013).


  • Right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and will always be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all. - Learned Hand

Hand’s line has found confirmation in considerable research on the wisdom of crowds, perhaps best summarized in Scott Page’s (2008) The Difference. This effect does depend on certain conditions being met, for example, that opinions are formed independently.


  • All politics is local. - Tip O’Neill

O’Neill’s oft-cited line has a lot of resonance in American politics and there is considerable evidence showing that representatives in the US pay enormous attention to their local districts. However, this is less generalizable to other political systems, particularly ones with proportional representation where districts are much larger (the entire country in the case of the Netherlands) and represented by multiple parties. There is also less evidence that voters vote based on conditions in their district as opposed to national conditions and this nationalization of politics has been increasing in the US (Abramowitz and Webster 2016, Hopkins 2018). On the nationalization of politics in Europe, see Caramani (2004).


  • I am not sure that those who clamor most, suffer most. - Peel

Peel’s hypothesis is a commonplace in the political participation literature where those most likely to use their voice or to actively protest tend to be more educated and better-off (Verba et al. 1995).


  • Assassination has never changed the history of the world. - Disraeli

Disraeli obviously wrote this before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered World War I. Jones and Olken (2009) have found that successful assassinations do affect democracy and conflict, though whether these constitute changes in “the history of the world” is not speculated upon.


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