The Role of Character in the 2016 Political Elections

What is the relationship between political policy and a candidate’s character and integrity? In two instances during the 2016 campaign, with references to the Hillary Clinton email scandal and Bill Clinton sex scandal, Bernie Sanders has downplayed the significance of these subjects as relevant to who the nation elects president. Despite the potential advantage that these character-damaging topics might have for Bernie’s election chances, he has chosen to move away from them and to recenter the focus on the “issues” — primarily economic, racial, and social justice.

Specifically, Bernie has said, in regards to the emails, “The American People are sick and tired of hearing about your [Hillary’s] damn emails.”

More recently, Bernie said “We’ve got more important things to worry about in this country than Bill Clinton’s sex life.”

In both of these instances, Bernie seems to have categorized these topics as character-assassinations, distractions from what actually matters. For Bernie, these are inflammatory issues that “corporate media” perpetuates in order to generate revenue. To engage with them is to be co-opted by that same media, violating Sanders’ personal ethics, and working against the transformation of American Politics that Sanders hopes to catalyze.

It seems that assessing the character of a candidate is an innate element for the vast majority of elections. If a candidate is untrustworthy or corrupt, than any policy recommendations they suggest mean very little. A candidate is not legally bound to do anything they say they will once elected. The voters can only rely on the candidate’s good faith. At the end of the day, no politician has absolutely power. Compromise and change will occur. Therefore, policy proposals alone do not accurately represent the value of a candidate.

This raises a larger question of how important the person enacting policy change is to the success of that initiative. To some extent, we all recognize that the relationships, experience, and leadership skills of an individual leading a major reform will have some bearing on the outcome. Politics is not a theoretical exercise. It happens amongst real people, in specific contexts. So then it seems that the qualities of the person leading a political reform, movement, or an entire nation, at least to some extent, does matter.

With this in mind, then, the question is, to what extent does it matter? What are relevant topics for assessing a candidate and what are not? Is character more important than policy? These questions ultimately have no exact answers. It comes down to an individuals personal values and decision-making process. There is no mathematical formula. In the same way we choose friends, we collect information over time about a candidate, from past behavior, to beliefs, to benefits, and make a decision. The primary difference is that we can change our friendship status at any moment, while we must almost always keep a politician for the length of their term. The same decision-making process is valid, but the stakes are higher. Ultimately, all of the information we gather about a friend or politician is crystallized into a feeling, an intuition. The best we can do is seek out and understand as much information as possible about that person to inform our intuition. Certainly, accurate information about the character of a politician should play a role in that process. It may not be the obligation of a competing candidate to uncover or expose that information, but it is relevant to some extent.

If choosing between Clinton and Sanders, as this video exemplifies, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rpm4rjejFgQ, Clinton has shown herself to be more prone to controversy, scandal, and political posturing than Sanders. Over time, she has changed her position on many issues, from gay marriage to immigration to the Iraq war, to benefit from that moments’ political climate. Some may call this flexibility and others flip-flopping. The bottom line is that Clinton will change her positions over time. It is unclear what she believes.

Conversely, Sanders has been remarkably consistent over the length of his career. He has a record of prioritizing economic and social justice since his days in college. You may not agree with the changes Sanders hopes to enact, but you can believe that he means what he says. Sanders believes what he says.

Character and integrity are not the only factors in choosing a president, but they are critical factors in understanding how meaningful the policies a candidate hopes to promote really are to that candidate. Are they tools for getting elected or deeply held beliefs? Ultimately, you must decide.