Ignacio Arana – Does it matter who the president is?

This is a guest post from Ignacio Arana of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

No other human beings in any Western democracy attract more attention than the country’s presidents. Presidents are the most powerful politicians in presidential systems and their decisions have relevant political, social, economic and symbolic consequences. Given the vast amounts of scholarly literature dedicated to understand presidential behavior and performance, one would expect that many relevant questions have been responded. However, despite the rivers of ink that have run on the study of presidents and presidencies, we still cannot answer confidently two fundamental questions: does it matter who the president is? If so, how does it matter?

These are the main questions I address in my research. I explore how individual differences among presidents have an impact on governance. Research on differential psychology refers to individual differences as how people differ from each other in how they feel, act, think and behave. Most quantitative research in political science that analyzes the presidency treats the unique characteristics of leaders as “residual variance.” My research challenges this approach, building on the literature on differential psychology that has proved that many individual differences are stable and explain a significant part of human behavior. I argue that presidents’ individual differences help explain highly relevant political phenomena, including institutional change and policy outcomes.

My research in this topic is mainly channeled through my current book project, The Quest for Uncontested Power: How Presidents’ Personality Traits Leads to Constitutional Change in the Western Hemisphere. In this project I argue that the individual differences of presidents explain which leaders attempt to change the constitution to increase their powers or extend their terms. Thirty eight presidents of the Americas made such attempts forty eight times between 1945 and 2012. Among the presidents who have tried to consolidate their power via a constitutional change are the most prominent leaders that have emerged in Latin America. Leaders such as Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, Juan Domingo Perón, Hugo Chávez, Getúlio Vargas, José María Velasco Ibarra and Joaquín Balaguer dramatically changed the political paths of Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, respectively.

To understand why some presidents try to change the constitution to consolidate their power and others do not I conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 former Latin American presidents from eight countries between June 2011 and May 2012. Presidents discussed three types of questions. First, they were asked about their individual differences and whether their personal attributes can be related to their performance in office. Second, they discussed the political context in which they governed. Finally, the leaders were asked about their relation with the constitution, and the reasons they might have had to attempt to change it to consolidate their power.

These interviews served to develop two hypotheses that propose which kind of presidents are more likely to attempt a constitutional change to consolidate their power. First, I claim that the presidents’ individual propensity to take risks influence their decision to attempt to change the country’s legal charter. Risk taking entails the willingness to lose something of value weighted against the potential to gain something of value. Undoubtedly, presidents have much to gain by increasing their powers or extending their term. On the other side, the attempts to change the charter can fail and even mark the end of a government. For instance, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano was ousted in 1993 due to his attempt to consolidate his power via a self-coup that indefinitely suspended the constitution. Different levels of individual risk taking should explain why some leaders have attempted constitutional changes in risky circumstances, while others have not tried to do so even in promising circumstances. Second, I propose that more assertive presidents are more likely to change the constitution to consolidate their power. Psychologists have proposed different definitions of assertiveness. I follow the operational definition used in the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP; Goldberg 1999; Goldberg et al. 2006). Through eleven statements, the scale captures the characteristics of individuals who are highly motivated to succeed, know how to convince and lead others, feel comfortable taking control of things and do it promptly. This scale fits the profile of leaders who try to change the constitution to consolidate their power. Since a constitutional reform entails a large bargaining process in which presidents need to make a big effort to succeed, the leaders should be strongly oriented toward success. Moreover, presidents need the ability to persuade other political actors that their project to reform the charter is something that they should support. Additionally, presidents who want to increase their powers or extend their terms should feel more comfortable enjoying more responsibilities.

To test the theory I created the Presidential Database of the Americas, a novel dataset of the 315 presidents who governed 19 Latin American countries and the United States between 1945 and 2012. This database integrates information from three sources. Data about presidents’ personality traits comes from an online survey distributed to 911 experts from 26 nationalities. The experts answered standardized psychometric questionnaires and items designed to measure the most important unique characteristics of leaders. Second, researcher assistants coded 13 individual characteristics of presidents taken from biographical data. Finally, the study was enriched with the semi-structured interviews conducted with former presidents.

Through a series of discrete-time duration analyses, my book project shows that risk-prone and assertive presidents are more likely to try to increase their powers. The presidents’ assertiveness also proves to be a relevant cause of their attempts to extend their terms. Interestingly, the individual differences of presidents have a stronger explanatory power than complementary explanations of constitutional change (i.e., institutional and contextual arguments).

A research agenda centered on unearthing how the individual differences of presidents relate to relevant political outcomes will lead to a deeper understanding of how the presidency works. But it also has an important normative implication. Voters and political parties would be better prepared to anticipate some of the consequences of choosing certain types of individuals for office, being able to minimize the problems of representation that arise when voters and organizations feel deceived by the politicians they have supported. Such level of knowledge would resemble an extensive hiring practice in the corporate world. For instance, Beagrie (2005) estimates that two thirds of medium to large organizations use some type of psychological testing in the United States, including aptitude as well as personality, in job applicant screening. The main reason for delivering personality tests is that it contributes to improve employee fit and reduces turnover up to 70% (Wagner, 2000). I argue that such valuable knowledge should be available to voters and organizations that participate in the selection of the most powerful position in the country.

My manuscript is part of a long-term research program for which I have an extensive list of projects. For more information on my professional background and academic projects, please refer to www.ignacioarana.com.

Beagrie, S. 2005. “How to… Excel at Psychometric Assessments.” Personnel Today: 25-28.
Goldberg, Lewis R. 1999. “A Broad-Bandwidth, Public Domain, Personality Inventory Measuring the Lower-Level Facets of Several Five-Factor Models.” Personality psychology in Europe 7: 7-28.

Goldberg, Lewis R., John A. Johnson, Herbert W. Eber, Robert Hogan, Michael C. Ashton, C. Robert Cloninger, and Harrison G. Gough. 2006. “The International Personality Item Pool and the Future of Public-Domain Personality Measures.” Journal of Research in Personality 40(1): 84-96.

Wagner, William F. 2000. “All Skill, No Finesse. Personality fit is every bit as important as your new hire’s technical ability.” WORKFORCE-COSTA MESA- 79(6): 108-117.

IMG_0700Ignacio has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. He currently is a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and coordinates Panoramas (http://www.panoramas.pitt.edu), the online forum of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests center on Latin America and include presidential behavior, constitutional change, judicial politics, informal institutions, and executive-legislative relations. He has published articles in the Journal of Legislative Studies, Latin American Politics and Society, Latin American Perspectives and Política. Before entering the PhD, he worked at the international desks of the newspapers El Mercurio (Chile, 2002-2008) and ABC (Spain, 2008). He can be reached at www.ignacioarana.com.

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