A political animal is one who is fascinated by politics and who thrives on being closely involved in politics.
The term was first used by Aristotle. Writing in the mid 4th century, BC, the Greek philosopher declared:
It is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it.
For Aristotle, being a “political animal” was roughly the same thing as being a social animal. He believed that man was intended, by his nature, to live with other men in society; only beasts and gods could survive on their own. Alone, man was liable to fall into animalistic, immoral habits.
We need the company of others to elevate us, Aristotle said:
Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature; but the man who first united people in such a partnership was the greatest of benefactors. For as man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst of all when sundered from law and justice.
Today, of course, we use the term “political animal” to mean one who is almost obsessed by the intricacies and roughness of politics.
The term can be used either as a mild insult, or as a grudging term of respect. It’s similar to the term pol.
A politician who is adept at calculating risk and making alliances might be called a political animal, because they seem to be ignoring purely idealistic considerations.
In December 2020, Time Magazine wrote about an unlikely alliance that had formed between the Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and the Republican junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley. The two had joined forces to push for a stimulus package:
Hawley and Sanders are the rare breed of political animal who understands policy enough to wield it for political gain. Hawley, a Stanford and Yale Law graduate who clerked for the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts, is currently the youngest member of the Senate, and not a shy one at that…
Sanders, too, has his own sharp knife here. A two-time contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the University of Chicago-educated activist racked up a combined tally approaching 23 million votes. Sanders is a declared independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but he’s a major player within the progressive movement’s grassroots base and can cause a headache when he sets his mind to something.
Around the same time, Dr. Scott Atlas, one of President Trump’s advisers on the COVID-19 pandemic, slammed the infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him a political animal.
Atlas said that Fauci had become far more optimistic about the pandemic since the election, which saw Joe Biden beat out Donald Trump. Atlas claimed that Fauci had “lost credibility” by taking on a sunnier outlook since Trump’s defeat:
There’s all kinds of prognostications that were made — all negative, all to undermine what the reality of the timelines were, all to undermine the president,” Atlas added of Fauci’s comments. “And I think, you know, once you do that sort of thing and make yourself a political animal, basically, you lose your credibility.
Uses of “political animal”
Politico (May 4,, 2022): “Many ECB watchers view Christine Lagarde more as a political animal than a dyed-in-the-wool central banker.”
New York Times (Mat 2, 2022): “Theodore Roosevelt, a renowned political animal and polymath, once said, ‘I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics.'”