Politics & Policy

A Modest Proposal: Character Counts, Starting in 2018

The U.S. Capitol, January 5, 2011. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Will both parties sign on to a demand for higher standards?

Partisan passions are driving many Americans to become extremely tolerant of bad behavior by their preferred leaders.

Many critics of the religious Right are relishing the perceived hypocrisy in this group’s seemingly sudden about-face with respect to what it expects from its leaders. In 2011, Public Religion Research Institute asked voters whether “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” In six years, the number of white Evangelicals who believe that a politician can still behave ethically despite immoral behavior increased from 30 percent to 72 percent. Many analysts attribute this changed perspective to President Donald Trump. If Christians wanted a Supreme Court justice who would protect religious freedoms and someday support restrictions on abortion, they had to accept the twice-divorced casino and strip-club owner who appeared on the cover of Playboy and boasted about where he could grab women without consequence.

Then again, perhaps there’s a certain cynical logic to the revised Evangelical position. “Compartmentalization” was an extremely common argument made by defenders of Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Democrats and fans of the president insisted that even though in his personal relationships he had demonstrated wild recklessness, appalling selfishness, shameless dishonesty, and irresponsibility, they had faith in him to be prudent, public-minded, honest, and responsible in his public duties. It sounds dumb, but then again, a lot of beloved figures in American life had deep personal flaws hidden from the public’s view.

Sean Trende summarized a common argument in conservative circles: “(A) We fought a battle over whether character counts, and got our [tushes] handed to us and (B) liberal leaders always circle the wagons around their guys, and ours always cave.” This may or many not be accurate; we can think of cases where Republicans were caught in scandal and served out their term (Idaho senator Larry Craig) and we can think of cases where Democrats were more or less pushed out of office quickly (former congressman Anthony Weiner). Most partisans prefer to remember both the cases where their side acted honorably, demanding serious consequences for bad behavior, and times when the other side circled the wagons and defended the indefensible.

The closing months of 2017 are showcasing Americans in an endless tit-for-tat where neither side’s partisans want to abandon or rebuke the wrongdoers in their midst, because they feel that the other side refuses to do it and that imposing serious penalties on your own side’s members for bad behavior amounts to a strategic disadvantage. Of course, if partisans endorse the unspoken but clear message “We’ll always protect the unethical ones on our side,” it guarantees they’ll get more unethical behavior. They’re sending the signal to all aspiring leaders within their movement that they would rather live with bad behavior on their own side than give the other side a “win.”

Do we really want a political (and media, and entertainment, and corporate) culture where the worst offenders can count on no worse than 50–50 odds of escaping consequences? If we knew we had the option of a culture where the rules would be applied fairly and evenly, would we continue to choose to live in one where leaders’ ethical lapses are swept under the rug?

Think of our collective political culture and standards of behavior as an Etch A Sketch. We’re trying our best to control the little knobs and chart a steady course, but we can rarely make a clear, smooth line. (Curves are the most difficult, which is perhaps an appropriate metaphor considering the recent cases of sexual misconduct.) We’ve ended up shifting too much one way here and then another way there — too forgiving and then too harsh and then too forgiving again. (Did Jack Ryan really need to withdraw from the 2004 Senate race? Did his sealed divorce records really need to be published? In the end, he withdrew from the race for embarrassing revelations about the kind of sex he wanted to have with his own wife, and both Ryans wanted the records to remain sealed.) After a while, the image on the Etch A Sketch gets messier and messier, and it becomes harder and harder to discern what the intended image is. We end up with a dark mess that no one likes.

It’s time to pick up the Etch A Sketch, shake it thoroughly, and start over again.

What if there was a broad political agreement that, starting in 2018, character counts again for everybody on both sides?

We want to believe in mercy and redemption. But we also need accountability, and to deter the temptation to abuse power, which is a human trait, not a partisan one.

We may not need saints, and we may forgive dumb decisions and irresponsible behavior, particularly in a person’s younger years. We are likely to want to consider the figure’s whole life. As Denzel Washington’s character declares in the new movie Roman J. Israel, Esq., “Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We want to believe in mercy and redemption. But we also need accountability, and to deter the temptation to abuse power, which is a human trait, not a partisan one.

No one’s entitled to an elected office, cabinet position, judgeship, badge, or any position of public trust. Our founders were influenced by the quote from Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.” Political power and influence often comes with fame, opportunities both legal and not so legal to expand one’s fortune, and often a network of sycophants, enablers, and favor-seekers. We like to think that if we had power, fame, fortune, and groupies, we would still be good people. Perhaps, but temptation is always easier to resist when it’s merely theoretical.

We will need this broad bipartisan agreement to set out standards for evaluating unproven allegations of bad behavior. Does the accuser bring proof? Do the details of the account match verifiable facts? Does it fit a pattern of complaints or other allegations? Is there reason to doubt the accuser’s honesty, or does the accuser have some other potential motive?

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a good standard for legal procedures, where the consequence can include fines, jail time, even execution. But in many of these cases relating to political figures, we’re dealing with behavior that’s not quite criminal: bullying, vulgar language, repeated unwanted sexual advances that never quite cross the line into unwanted touching. We need punishments that fit crimes even when they are not crimes. Perhaps not every example of bad behavior warrants resignation. It’s a shame there’s no political equivalent of an NFL commissioner who can hand out multi-week suspensions.

Perhaps as we contemplate a return to valuing character, it’s worth thinking about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and what his peers knew about his behavior beyond the sexual realm. It’s good that our culture is now enforcing a long-overdue intolerance of sexual predation, but apparently everyone who encountered and worked with Weinstein considered him to be a violently tempered, verbally abusive egomaniac who enjoyed humiliating subordinates. But his bullying actions carried no social cost until we knew about his sexual harassment. Is there a “broken-windows theory” for personal behavior? Is it that if a wealthy powerful man is allowed to bully and humiliate others with no consequence, he’ll indulge his worst impulses further, given time?

Perhaps the key slogan for a better 2018 would be “You can’t treat people like that.” But if character is going to count again, both sides of the ideological divide need to sign on.


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