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I rarely write about politics but the current presidential election compels me to share some thoughts. I write not to advocate for or against one party or candidate. Instead, I am advocating for a principle. That principle is that a candidate’s character should matter when voting. This may seem to many simplistic, naïve, and Quixotic. But perhaps it is best to look past all the chaos of this election and focus on basics.
In deciding who to vote for, let’s ignore whether the candidate is a member of my tribe or not. Let’s ignore whether they are a good debater or are adept at the sound bite. Let’s ignore their platitudes, the promises they can’t possibly keep, how much money they have raised, and their skills at today’s political games. Instead, let’s consider their character.
Character — “the aggregate of moral qualities by which a person is judged apart from intelligence, competence, or special talents” — seems quaint and old fashioned. Who talks about it? Who works at developing their character? Do we even discuss virtues, the basis of character? What does character have to do in being successful or happy? Is this even a relevant concept? I believe it is fundamental to individual happiness and the success of society. Martin Luther King said it so well: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Judgment is unavoidable and necessary in human society and we should judge on character, which people can control, not race, beauty, and other factors which they can’t. We should recognize the work and wisdom necessary to develop and exhibit the virtues we see in people we admire and respect.
Why is character important in selecting a president? Isn’t ideology and policy far more important? Aren’t political skills, the ability to win elections, and the skill at wielding political power more important? I think not. Political skills and ideology mean nothing if they don’t rest on good character. We do not know what national and world events will face a new president. Consider history, our great leaders, and the most difficult decisions and actions that presidents have had to make. The world often hands leaders situations never anticipated when the campaign was waged and the election won. We need leaders to make the difficult decisions where there are no simple answers and where ideology alone is insufficient. It is those situations where character provides the basis for actions and decisions. Look at the people whose leadership and decisions have withstood the tests of time and we see people possessing a character we admire and respect.
To start, perhaps we should ask which candidate exhibits the best character considering the four core virtues advocated by the Stoics: Wisdom (the reasoning ability and knowledge to make good joices and carry them out), Justice (a well developed philosophy of what is fair and the means to achieve fairness), Courage (the ability to do what is right in face of personal risk, and Temperance (the ability to control emotions and impulses and demonstrate self control).
So as we decide who to vote for, let’s consider the content of their character. Are they someone we would trust making the difficult decisions in situations we can’t anticipate? Do they posses the characteristics we consider virtues? Would we seek their advice as we face our own difficult decisions? Have they shown that they learn and are better people now than they were years ago? Would we want them for an in-law? None of the candidates will be perfect and we will have to judge which one has the strongest character and best exhibits the virtues we aspire to. I believe character and virtue matters in life and it should matter in politics. Let’s bring more dignity to our political process by making character important in choosing political leaders.