Monday, March 10, 2008

Character and Politics

Does character count?

A lot of time is spent in politics discussing the character of different politicians. How much of this kind of discussion is really relevant?

Well, it depends on what the context is, what issue or question the discussion is trying to resolve. The character of a politician isn't relevant if the discussion concerns what policy or course of action we should adopt. Arguing, for instance, that "Smith the politician does not possess good moral character, therefore we shouldn't adopt his positions on abortion, immigration, taxes, etc." is nothing more than ad hominem reasoning. The character of a politician has no bearing on what the correct position is on some moral or political issue.

However, character is relevant when a politician is up for election. Voters not only have a legitimate interest not just in knowing where a politician stands on various moral and political issues, but also in knowing, for instance, whether a candidate for office is generally honest and faithful to his or her word. After all, if a candidate is not honest and faithful, how will voters know what the candidate's real positions are? Moreover, it could also be argued that having an honest and faithful individual in office will have good consequences: their conduct could set a good example for people, and may make them better at dealing with other politicians and representatives of other countries.

There is, though, considerable debate about what constitutes good character. I've mentioned honesty and being faithful to one's promises, but these need not be the only considerations. Plus, there will be disagreements about what actions constitute an unacceptable breach of honesty or faithfulness. Also, there will be disagreements about whether or not untrustworthiness in a candidate's personal life or business dealings should lead us to conclude that they are also untrustworthy in matters related to public office.

I'll end by focusing on that last point, and noting that there is a fair amount of hypocrisy regarding to whether or not candidates can "compartmentalize" their private lives and their public lives. Many candidates, while running for office, put their families on public display, implicitly making the argument that their happy family life counts in favor of voting for them. However, when it is revealed that that same candidate is involved in some sordid affair or other in their private or family life, the candidate (or the candidate's defenders) often make the claim that their private and public lives are separate, and one need not interfere with the other. This seems inconsistent to me, however. Candidates should keep their families off stage during political campaigns, or accept that sordid details of their family lives are fair game for discussion.

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern. Nonetheless, many in the news media will try to make the campaign about personalities and character instead. And character isn’t totally irrelevant. The next president will surely encounter issues that aren’t currently on anyone’s agenda, so it matters how he or she is likely to react. But the character trait that will matter most isn’t one the press likes to focus on. In fact, it’s actively discouraged. … No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course. And that’s a virtue in very short supply. … Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work. Indeed, the most reckless and dangerous ideologues are often those who imagine themselves ideology-free — for example, self-proclaimed centrists — and are, therefore, unaware of their own biases. What you should seek, in yourself and others, is not an absence of ideology but an open mind, willing to consider the possibility that parts of the ideology may be wrong. … So what’s the state of intellectual integrity at this point in the election cycle? Pretty bad, at least on the Republican side of the field. … as far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admitted that none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened. The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, May 1, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is discussing the topic of character in politics. He makes a good point about ideology (i.e., everybody has one, you can't get rid of it), but he leaves the impression that only Republicans refuse to take responsibility for their failed predictions. That is, he's resorting to the "only my opponent" caricature and demonizing Republicans by suggesting that they don't care about truth. Krugman also exaggerates when he says Republicans "never" admit error. Perhaps this is a tu quoque argument on my part, but is it a lack of intellectual integrity for Krugman to only be alarmed at the absence of accountability of Republicans, and not Democrats as well? After all, President Barack Obama and other Democrats made predictions about the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") that didn't come true (e.g., premiums will drop by up to $2,500 dollars, if you like your plan or doctor, you can keep them, etc.), but they haven't owned up to their errors, have they?

Imagine yourself as a regular commentator on public affairs … You weigh in on a major policy initiative that’s about to happen, making strong predictions of disaster. … But nothing you predicted actually comes to pass. What do you do? You might admit that you were wrong, and try to figure out why. But almost nobody does that; we live in an age of unacknowledged error. Alternatively, you might insist that sinister forces are covering up the grim reality. … Finally, there’s a third option: You can pretend that you didn’t make the predictions you did. … Several months into 2014 many leading Republicans — including John Boehner, the speaker of the House — were predicting that more people would lose coverage than gain it. And everyone on the right was predicting that the law would cost far more than projected, adding hundreds of billions if not trillions to budget deficits. What actually happened? There was no rate shock … You see, in a polarized political environment, policy debates always involve more than just the specific issue on the table. They are also clashes of world views. … And there’s also a moral issue involved. Refusing to accept responsibility for past errors is a serious character flaw in one’s private life. It rises to the level of real wrongdoing when policies that affect millions of lives are at stake.
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, April 27, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is discussing character in politics, but also indulging in the "only my opponent" caricature by leaving the impression that only (or mostly) Republicans fail to correct their mistakes. He is demonizing Republicans in suggesting that they aren't concerned about being honest.

So Hillary Clinton is officially running, to nobody’s surprise. And you know what’s coming: endless attempts to psychoanalyze the candidate, endless attempts to read significance into what she says or doesn’t say about President Obama, endless thumb-sucking about her “positioning” on this or that issue. Please pay no attention. Personality-based political analysis is always a dubious venture — in my experience, pundits are terrible judges of character. … In any case, there has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, April 13, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is addressing the issue of whether character counts in politics. Krugman is insisting that the parties' stance on issues matters far more than personality. But, since we generally don't get to vote for parties or policies – on the federal level, we vote for people to fill an office (e.g., President, Senator, etc.) – don't we have to trust that the candidate will carry out the policies of their party? Isn't that a legitimate worry, given how politicians sometimes flip-flop on issues or fail to live up to campaign pledges? Don't voters and constituents routinely complain that politicians aren't doing enough to "fight for their party's values"?

"[GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is] solid and trustworthy, faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best."
-- GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), September 14, 2012, addressing the Values Voter Summit.

Comment: Is the fact that someone has a good marriage a reason in favor of voting for them? Is somebody who has had (or is having) a divorce somehow a bad candidate for office? Is "vote for me because I have a happy family and marriage" (or something along those lines) a good argument? This gets into the issue of the relationship between character and politics.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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