John Paul Rollert Shares Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Faculty Insight

John Paul Rollert

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Rollert’s work explores the moral dimensions of politics, from the practical applications of empathy to the political economy of business ethics. He teaches leadership and ethics at Harvard Extension School. He is also a prolific writer whose work has been published in the Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and Politico.


Recently, Rollert spoke with journalist Chris Bentley about ethics and empathy in politics and lessons from the 2016 presidential candidates.

You research empathy and its applications in politics and business ethics. What are the words “politics” and “ethics” doing in the same sentence in this age of cynicism?

(laughs) I think it's a fairly good question, especially in regards to this election.

Obviously there are different ways in which you can think about ethics and politics. One way is the ethical significance or ethical consequences of policy decision making.

Take, for example, some of Donald Trump's most inflammatory proposals—whether that is building the wall with Mexico or banning any kind of Muslim immigration from overseas. I think there are many people in the country, by no means all, who would say those proposals are deeply immoral.  Well, why are they immoral? What does it say about Americans or the American spirit or particular voters to believe such proposals are immoral or moral?

The second level of analysis is the relative morality or immorality of a particular political candidate. How honest and trustworthy is a particular candidate?

Of course, neither Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump are seen as being especially trustworthy. And that lends itself to precisely the kind of cynicism that you're describing. It also leads to the conclusion that we're in a moment where morality in politics seems not so much problematic as nonexistent.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but are there lessons we can glean from the current presidential candidates that would merit an update in your leadership lessons course?

In the case of Donald Trump's campaign, the real interesting lesson centers on communication in the age of social media.

Donald Trump has been able to use the freely available resources of social media to extravagant effect.

Hillary Clinton is literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Trump campaign on communications. The fact that the Trump campaign has been able to do all they've done without paid media consultants, paid advertisements, and the traditional apparatus of a campaign is nothing short of astonishing.

It may simply underscore the importance of celebrity in American politics. But I think part of the story that we have to unravel as we think about this election—certainly from the standpoint of our class—is how, exactly, has Trump used social media so dramatically and remarkably?

When you are a successful individual, gossip always surrounds you. You can't escape it, and you don't necessarily want to escape it altogether. But how do you get to the better end of gossip?”

If you look at the Clinton side, there may be a negative lesson in communication. Clinton’s team has not been successful in putting to bed some of the controversies surrounding their candidate.

Now, I suspect they would say, in regards to issues like Benghazi or the e-mail server, that the media is keeping those alive. But here we are, well over a year after she declared her candidacy, and she hasn't been able to lance these boils. To me, that’s a fascinating study in failing to successfully deliver your message.

If you can't address this criticism in an aggressive fashion, you're going to spend all your time on the trail talking about it—instead of articulating your vision.

Luckily for Secretary Clinton, the person on the other side of the ticket has not proved himself adept in taking full advantage of her missteps. And, at the end of the day, elections are about alternatives, not ideals. So she doesn't have to be the best of all worlds, she simply has to be better than the alternative.

A final lesson involves the nature of gossip. When you are a successful individual, gossip always surrounds you. You can't escape it, and you don't necessarily want to escape it altogether.

But how do you get to the better end of gossip? Part of Donald Trump's success has been to make himself much talked about—although in ways rather inconsistent with what we often think of as successful leadership.

In my view, the goal of gossip in politics is to have people speak about you in a fashion consistent with the requirements of power, authority, and successful leadership. But people often talk about Trump as if he's the most remarkable sideshow in town.

One of the questions that I think politicians have to ask themselves moving ahead is whether Trump is ultimately right that all press is good press. What does it bode for the future if a Kim Kardashian candidacy is going to be tremendously successful?

The moral implications of that I haven't really thought through entirely myself. But I think for most people they're probably pretty disquieting.

President Obama writes a lot about empathy in The Audacity of Hope. How is empathy central to politics today?

Obama is a great place to start. I think that President Obama's experience as a biracial citizen who has lived a life of tremendous social mobility led him to value empathy at an early age.

In the world we live in, you can't take the views of everyone else around you for granted. In fact, in a highly diverse world doing so may be dangerous. It can lead one to be judgmental and intolerant.”

But then, the further he got pulled into politics, the more he found that in a pluralistic, highly diverse democratic society, empathy is incredibly important. That's largely because in a diverse world you can't take for granted the beliefs of everyone else around you.

Contrast that with, for example, living in a small village in northern Germany in the nineteenth century. You could probably feel pretty confident that your nextdoor neighbors saw the world very much in the way that you did. So empathy wasn't called on too much. There was no reason for you to step into their shoes because you were just as well off in your own.

In the world we live in, you can't take the views of everyone else around you for granted. In fact, in a highly diverse world doing so may be dangerous. It can lead one to be judgmental and intolerant. So to a certain extent empathy was forced on us. Incumbent on an individual in a diverse community is a kind of empathic response.

Adam Smith was a social philosopher who is seen by many as the father of modern capitalism. You’ve written a lot about popular misinterpretations of Smith. What do people typically get wrong when they evoke Adam Smith, especially in political circles?

Adam Smith had the blessing and the burden of being tremendously successful for only one of the books he wrote. His first, The Theory of Moral Sentiments—which includes great lessons in empathy—is entirely overlooked in favor of The Wealth of Nations.

So to a certain extent Adam Smith is unfairly tagged with thinking that a crude notion of self-interest is what ultimately rules the world.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Self-interest is not something that is static or something that Smith himself took for granted. Self-interests are complex and often morally fraught.

There's not a single type of interest to make a great deal of money. It’s more complex. The idea that somehow self-interest is synonymous with the profit motive is just a crude understanding of what his entire project was all about.

It's true that we are certainly concerned with making money. But I don't think any of us have ever met a person for whom that's his or her only concern. We're a series of composite concerns.

There are different things you want out of this life. The more your vision is limited to one kind of self-interest (for example, making money or being powerful), the more dangerous you'll be. You want an individual who has a healthy sense of balance about his or her ambition.

This current election aside, do political systems or societies—democracies at least—tend to become more or less ethical over time? Or do we just see things differently, in a new context?

If you consider that democratically elected officials include everyone from Nelson Mandela to Adolf Hitler, I think the record is mixed. What I would say is that modernity gives us far greater scope for both moral and immoral behavior.

The actions of the NGOs and benevolent state actors have helped to almost eradicate deadly conditions like cholera and smallpox. But at the same time, countries around the world continue to develop weapons of mass destruction.

I don't know that the better angels of our nature are stronger than they were for those who came before us. But we should hope so, as the devils who sit on our shoulders surely have larger pitchforks.

—Interview by Chris Bentley

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Sheila Wolfe (not verified) replied:

Analysis of Trumps success very interesting to me.

September 15, 20168:21pm

Satish Upadhyay (not verified) replied:

Good and practical view. I am in india, wants to know how to proceed to contest election. Form a political party. Regards

September 16, 20165:12am

MOHAMMAD TOHA (not verified) replied:

Excellent but no one listen to the truth .

September 18, 201611:45am

While maknly ac... (not verified) replied:

While activities that generate income is not the only thing that an adult does, it is suppose to be part of his or her main focus because his or her family cannot survive without a steady income. It is a fallacy to think that an adult can execute any of his or her agenda without it. Books need to be bougth, offerings need to be given, refreshment after lecture need to be paid for, tuition? Mortgage, rent, insurance, food, clothes, etc all need to be paid for. So almost every other activity is around it. Therefore, it must be clearly part of a president' s plan.

October 2, 201611:08am

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