It has always been a mystery to me how some folks could think character does not matter—or rather, that it doesn’t matter enough to demand particularly high standards of our elected officials. It was the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who instructed us that character was the defining qualification for a ruling class. A study by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia sheds light on America’s strange ambivalence. “The Politics of Character” survey was based on 1,200 telephone interviews drawn from a national probability sample representative of the adult civilian population, eighteen years and older, living in private households in the United States. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percent. Basically, the study found that most people do think character is important (90%), but the same people aren’t exactly sure what constitutes character or how it remotely relates to politics or to public policy. Character is popular, but the concept is bereft of content! The study found our country’s commitment to character is pretty shallow—and probably inertial, a function of our history.
Indeed, character and conviction were once conjoined and esteemed. The Founders were adamant about character’s importance. Christian faith and traditional Western values supplied its content. No one doubted that people should and would choose leaders of character, and that good representatives are indispensable to good government. George Washington said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” Thomas Jefferson said, “A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of [a republic’s] laws and constitution.” Alexis de Tocqueville wondered how America should escape destruction, “if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed.” And James Madison, Father of the Constitution and author of its most famed checks and balances said, if there be no virtue among us, “we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of Government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of Government will secure liberty or happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
The architects of this Republic knew the importance of character and the high moral qualities that comprised it. Taken together, this was a basic article of democratic faith. Today’s democratic faith is laced with confusion and contradiction. The majority of Americans believe that “all views of what is good are equally valid” (72% agree) and that “everything is beautiful—it is all a matter of how you look at it” (69% agree). On the other hand, the majority (77%) also believes “we would all be better off if we could live by the same basic moral guidelines.” By wide margins, the majority believes that both “obeying those in positions of authority” (92%) and “following your own conscience” (81%) are important to character. They also believe “sacrificing your own interests for the good of others” (88%) and “protecting your own interests” (88%) to be important to character. Likewise, the majority believes that “sticking to one’s principles no matter what” (95%) and “enjoying yourself” (92%) are essential. Similar contradictions continue, when respondents are asked about specific moral issues. In terms of holding officials accountable, just 46% insist the president (a high symbolic representative of the people) needs the same virtue as the people, in order to govern effectively. Americans have become rather indiscriminate it seems, and that’s not fuzzy math—it’s fuzzy thinking.