Character matters more than policy or experience in politics

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In the process of parties choosing their nominees, and voters deciding to support this or that candidate, the selection criteria generally breaks down into three categories: qualifications, policy stances, and character. It is time to realize that the balance of those three criteria should swing heavily in one direction, that of the candidate’s character.

This is not to say that qualifications and policy stances are unimportant. They matter very much in determining the effectiveness of a candidate to govern, to get things done, and give the voter a window into how a candidate would most likely  support or oppose any number of policy changes in order to deal with the many problems and opportunities facing the country.

However there are a few problems with giving inordinate weight to either qualifications or policy stances. The most obvious example might be the fact that one of the most qualified presidential candidates in history lost to a man that had never held elected office. She did so in no small part BECAUSE of her qualifications: she had been in politics most of her adult life, had been First Lady, a Senator, and Secretary of State. Her opponent was able to use the public’s long familiarity with her to paint her as one of the corrupt, establishment politicians that would maintain the status quo and do nothing to change the lives of ordinary citizens for the better.

On policy, in these partisan times there’s usually not much practical difference between party candidate A and party candidate B. The two parties have, for the most part, staked out positions on opposite sides of the issues and most candidates can be expected to vote in line with the party dogma. Since most candidates don’t stray too far from the party on issues, policy positions become less of a differentiating factor between individual candidates.

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The real indicator of a candidate that will be good for their constituents, good for their party, and good for the country is their moral character. In politics, there is both enormous opportunity to increase one’s personal power to the detriment of constituents as well as to make hard choices that must be made in order to move our country forward.

Every politician will have a staff of qualified individuals that know how to pass legislation or administer an agency, and any number of polls and other tools will let them know how their constituency wants to proceed with any specific policy. But the individuals that actually make decisions that affect policy are the ultimate endpoint for all civic engagement. Therefore it is absolutely critical that those individuals have the moral fiber to make decisions (often with little oversight) that are best for the country regardless of the effect on their individual careers.

This post is, pretty obviously, a reaction to the reality of the politician currently in the White House. He lies over and over again as it suits his situation. He has bragged about sexual assault, has made many racially charged remarks, defended white supremacist groups, calls the press “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”, and done or said a whole host of morally reprehensible things, so much so that Wikipedia has a landing page with all the various categories his scandals fall into.

Far from being merely controversial or embarrassing, his moral failures have real consequences for the country: our international reputation has plummeted, partisan tensions are increasing, as are racial tensions, and citizens have grown to distrust most news outlets. It’s no surprise that Americans rate this administration as the least ethical since Gallup started measuring.

As Trump has clearly illustrated, it is no longer enough to pay lip service to the idea of a candidate’s character. Character can not be thought of as something that is either a potential scandal or the absence of a negative. We must recognize that no individual policy stance, no experience or lack thereof, can be a substitute for ethical leaders when it comes time to govern. This goes for Democrats, Republicans, Independents, presidents, congressmen, school board members or SGA presidents. Our democracy simply cannot function well with charlatans and con men in positions of power.

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