What baggage becomes a politician most? In a democracy, voters are condemned to decide between imperfect men and women, each of whom presents a platform, listing left or inclining right. Should one select the platform or the politician who stands upon it? What is a simple voter to do? Put another way, should personal morality – or at least our judgments of that morality – trump those goals that we hope for a political to achieve. This is fundamentally the tension between having a politician serve as our representative in a Burkean sense or as our messenger of our immediate desires. Do we wish a deliberative democracy or a direct democracy in which we vote for a politician who will enact our policy preferences. Each model has appeal. The former suggests that we should focus on character and deliberative ability; the latter suggests that we examine ideology and policy most carefully.
While the battle between beliefs and character is not new, the choice is etched starkly at moments of national stress and ideological warfare – at those moments in which decisions really matter and in which we citizens are engaged. As Chantal Mouffe emphasizes a critically engaged electorate – one that accepts the reality and the virtue of conflict – can be good medicine in a democracy. At times we have the luxury of voting for virtue, but when the battle is joined, policy must trump person. Failed humans can still be fine leaders.
Perhaps, as Mark Twain averred, the Congress is our only native criminal class, but we have managed to thrive under the leadership of these rascals. We have little choice. Our lives are shaped by votes, more than by mischief. Perhaps we would like to find leaders who can persuade others and who can compromise – as Edmund Burke would have it – but most often politicians are tied to their beliefs and ours, and we voters find comfort in that.
We saw the stark choices in the recent election. When a party feels that they are in touch with the mood of the voters, they emphasize policy. When out of touch they emphasize character. This seemed particularly the case in 2010, when candidates such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (“I am not a witch”), Sharron Angle (“second-amendment remedies”), and Alaska’s Joe Miller (cited for misuse of his state computers) were judged wanting, even if there were in tune with the concerns of many voters. In other contests, both candidates have character flaws, such as in the heated election for Senate in Illinois. Illinois voters had to choose between two flawed candidates, but candidates who differ strongly on the issues and will be on opposite sides of many of the crucial issues facing the nation. According to opponents Congressman Mark Kirk may be a serial exaggerator, if not a deceitful fabricator, of his own biography. State Treasurer Alexis Giannoulias was, according to some, “married to the mob.” Eventually, by a small margin, we selected the exaggerator. Perhaps we should judge who is the lease horrid, but perhaps what matters is how they will vote when in office when their votes affect us. Must our legislators be models of rectitude, or is a reliable vote sufficient?
The balancing between character and belief is most salient for those without a track record. Candidates who lack a long political pedigree – common folk – may present themselves to voters with the small scandals of everyday life ready to be uncovered. They may have fudged and trimmed their finances and personal ethics. These men and women engage in what sociologists term “normal deviance.” These are behaviors that are formally wrong, but behaviors in which most of us have engaged in. Most of us could be brought up on charges for crimes and misdemeanors if uncovered: slapping a child, driving after too much beer, or heating on our taxes. We slide through life without oppositional research.
In this election cycle we found numerous unvetted newcomers with character flaws. But political veterans are susceptible as well. Back when he was a senator, Vice President Joe Biden admitted to plagiarizing another politician’s speech – an offence that the generous citizens of his state of Delaware forgave, even though his presidential dreams crashed and burned. forgave Congressman Charlie Rangel for not paying taxes on his rental properties, just as Louisiana citizens blessed Senator David Vitter despite his dalliance with prostitutes. Better their visions than those of their opponents. And then there is Bill Clinton, the poster child for overcoming stigma: larger-than-life, politically charismatic, whatever his personal defects. Sometimes character matters a lot; sometimes not so much.
Voters are wise enough to recognize that their jobs, their security, and their hopes and dreams, depend upon the policies of the imperfect. And this is especially true when the nation is at an ideological crossroads. Better a flawed conservative who protects human life and reins in government; better a slimy liberal who fights injustice and poverty. Searching for an angel is a mistake when we can embrace a sinner who shares our dreams.
Surely there are limits on those embraces. Some rogues do not deserve their hands near any cookie jar. The choice between character and ideology, stark as it sometimes is, is not always weighted towards the later. Still, my research on politicians with “difficult reputations” and that of other scholars of scandal reveal that many of our most consequential figures had troubling personal failings: from Thomas Jefferson to JFK or Ronald Reagan. But their ideas trumped their blemishes. Americans should be grateful for the leadership on civil rights, on national security, and on personal liberties of politicians who might not have made the best parents or partners.
Martin Luther King in his inspiring “I Have a Dream” Speech emphasized that we must first judge our fellow citizens by the “content of their character.” He was right, of course, to decry racism. But in politics, Rev. King was naïve. But when faced with grave national challenges, more than by the content of their character, we must judge aspiring leaders by the content of their beliefs and by the impact of their votes.