There was a time, a year ago to be exact, when I could write with confidence that the quality of individual character was the critical factor for us to consider in selecting leaders, a position that did not seem too novel at the time. It was an extension of the simple reason that most of us apply in identifying friends, choosing partners, hiring co-workers, and so on. We want to associate with people we understand and believe we can trust, people with whom there is a possibility for us to become better.
Indeed, in the past several years it has become something of a mission for me to emphasize the importance of personal courtesy and intellectual honesty, to recognize those who perform their work or service thoroughly, and to encourage those who endure difficulty with patience and equanimity. And though I may yet be right, the progress of the past year shows that, for Americans at least, defeating those whom we identify as opponents to us, or as threats to our success or obstacles to our progress, is the only factor to consider. Being of good character brings no advantage to the contest. Winning is everything.
American politics is a binary process; it grinds issues down to the barest arguments, and then transfers those to individuals who, it is hoped, will conduct themselves honorably and ably until the time comes to choose new candidates for their office. The problem, as I now analyze it, is not in the process but in the pool from which we draw candidates. Like us, they are the products of a larger population in which the lines between personal and public behavior are nearly indistinct, so anyone wanting to preserve some personal integrity will avoid the sacrifices to character that a public life may require. And, anyone wanting to achieve public success will become sanguine about the compromises to pride, integrity, or dignity that must be made to achieve notoriety, wealth, or influence.
Whereas we have relied on candidates’ honor and ability to serve us beyond the point of their election, we must now realize that the process delivers us individuals who are evidently very able and entirely without honor. Having arrived at this understanding, I cannot say I am much surprised. The worlds of commerce and entertainment devalued honor and personal integrity long ago. We like winners in business, in movies and sports. We have given up the habit of analyzing processes and evaluating performance. We want results.
Of course, the problem this presents is not how to avoid what is (to me and many others) an unappealing choice of presidential candidates, nor even how to live with the results. The results are easy to imagine. When you grow frustrated by the poor effort of employees, the unreliability of suppliers or customers, the failure of contractors to deliver services as promised, you’re dealing with the effects of society wants results but not performance.
The problem we will have is the problem we have already: how can we reestablish the belief that individual character has a value that is distinct from what we now call “success”?
Well, in time the issue may solve itself. People will become more selective in their personal associations and affiliations. They will rely less on the businesses, brands, and services they do not trust or cannot tolerate. They will become more self-reliant, more supportive of the good character in their colleagues and associates. I’m talking about rebuilding a civilized society, and I don’t expect it will be simple, or even fully “successful”. But it will be rewarding.