Character Is Not an Issue (No, Of Course Not!)

Let’s not hear any more about “character’, okay? This country is moving to a values neutral, non-judgmental consciousness in which such outdated concepts are irrelevant. “Character” is just another device by which the power elite seek to instill guilt in the masses and bring everyone under the control of old fogies and their retrograde values system.
Character is not an issue. Character is not an issue. Character is not an issue. Got it?

What’s with these politicians, anyway, trying to inject a concept like character into a straightforward contest for votes? It’s very negative.

Next, they’ll be quoting a bunch of dead Greeks, like Heraclitus (“Character is destiny.”) or Plutarch (“Character is simply habit long continued.”) We’re getting tired of it, burned out. It really brings people down. Talking about character has become a character flaw itself, when you think about it. Especially when candidates come right out and say that’s what they’re doing. Give us a candidate who has good vibes and sympathetic body language. If he’s going to attack his opponent’s character, he can do it on the sly or get a surrogate.

Besides, character doesn’t matter.

All right, maybe it matters a little bit. But, it has to take its place at the end of a long line of considerations used to evaluate a candidate. First, you need someone who is smart. And a riveting speaker. Good looks help–a lot. No Abe Lincolns need apply. And then you want someone who says things you agree with.

Character? A poor runner up in any relationship. Maybe you are deciding on a home remodeling contractor, or a banker, or a teacher (if you get a choice), or a doctor (if you get a choice much longer), or a lawyer. Do you want a good talker or character? Right: if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it! It’s not how you play the game, but whether or not you win that counts. If someone does something wrong, better to get past it, unless of course we can sue.

Character! Whose character, we want to know? The graybeards that prattle about “consequences,” “reliability,” “honor,” “keeping your word”? Talk about quaint; the other day one of them used the word “duty”! Next, it will be “honesty is the best policy!” Well, they have their values, we have ours. Haven’t they ever heard about the value of a good story? Or the value of getting away with it? Their values are yesterday’s, the old Eurocentric behavior control that runs all the way back to Aristotle and the Bible. Well, isn’t it time someone had a kind word for Nicolo Machiavelli?

Our hierarchy of character is just different. It is headed by “compassion,” which is best expressed, for example, by helping the less fortunate with other people’s money. Next comes “tolerance,” sometimes recognized as indifference with a wan smile.

The old guard are bogged down in particulars–this poor person, that family, the town over there–while we expand our “concern” to include whole groups and abstract categories of people; indeed, “The People” as a whole. So who has the larger view? Their boring politicians talk about this bill and that amendment; our sprightly leaders talk about the symbolic legislation that shows how they feel. The old guard say they care about results. Well, we are more idealistic; we care about intentions.

That’s why, as I think I said, character is not an issue.

“Right? Wrong?” Very good words, useful words; we use them all the time, in fact. But let’s be serious. Right and wrong depend on the situation–and who they are used against. What’s right and wrong also depends on public opinion, or, more particularly, on the polls. And, lately, on focus groups and on approval meters that people can hold in their lap to record their instantaneous reactions to a speaker’s every word.

“Leadership?” That’s very important, too. It involves finding out what the folks in the focus group or studio audience believe (or say they believe) and then advocating it.

The old timers prefer principles to values, because they are more permanent, and they think that human nature really doesn’t change over time. We moderns hope human nature does change because we are trying constantly to change it. And we ignore principles and prefer values, because values can be anything you want. They are merely an appendage of a constantly evolving social order, a reflection of the power structure at any given moment. As time goes by, it is smart to abandon some values as they become inconvenient. Other values we just give others new meanings; for example, “creative.” And other values we invent; for example, “energetic.”

So character is not an issue.

One candidate is a human weathervane? So? His opponent has changed his mind on several occasions; who is he to talk?

One candidate routinely breaks his word? So? His opponent failed to achieve his whole agenda.

They’re all the same. It’s all relative. Character is not an issue. Really, it’s not.

Feel better now? Good. Feelings are what it’s all about.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.