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Character and the Transformation of American Politics

On Principle, v2n3

July 1994

by Julie Ann Kessler

Every weekday, Rush Limbaugh reminds his millions of listeners across the country of the number of days left in the “Raw Deal” which is, as we know, the Clinton Presidency. Frequently, (and usually following some particularly “raw” deal perpetrated by the president), we are reminded of one of Rush’s most cherished maxims–one of his “35 Undeniable Truths”–to wit, “character matters; leadership descends from character.” Though Rush, to his credit, was saying this long before the ’92 election was over, it seems rather sad commentary that a majority of the American electorate could not be prevailed upon to consider it until after the inauguration. Sad commentary indeed, but is it understandable?

It is if we accept George Bush’s explanation of the virtues required for the Presidency. During Bush’s 1988 race against Michael Dukakis, Bush called upon voters to pull their levers for the man they thought most “competent” for the job. But what exactly is “competence” and how are the voters to judge of it. Asking for a competent president is begging the question: “Competent at what?” Surely Hitler and Stalin were competent men. Yet we are appalled by their competence–a competence that resulted in the slaughter of millions and the oppression of millions more.

In asking such questions, we would do well to remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not pledge their lives, their fortunes and their “sacred competence” but their “sacred honor”. Honor has to do with one’s reputation, one’s character, if you will. Though Washington was surely a competent man, it is clear that he was not deemed the “Father of Our Country” for his competence but for the honor and the respect his character commanded. Competence by itself has only to do with one’s ability to perform certain tasks. As we noted earlier, that Hitler and Stalin were competent at slaughtering millions of people is indisputable. But whether or not they should have been leading such slaughter is a question that can only be answered by someone of good character. As you would not want a brilliant doctor with evil intentions, so we do not want statesmen of bad character.

Because the Founders of this country understood this, elections were originally conceived as the best possible method for selecting those of the highest character. Jefferson called them the “natural aristocracy” as opposed to the artificial, or hereditary, aristocracy that prevailed in Europe. The thing that singled out America above all other nations was not its lack of aristocracy but its method of selection. In America all had an equal chance to become a part of that “natural aristocracy” because this aristocracy was selected according to principles of merit and not of birth. In Europe, and in all the other feudal regimes, transient things such as birth could enslave a person forever.

But there has been a radical transformation in American politics since the Founding. Whatever else might be said about the subject, it is clear that our expectations of elected officials have deteriorated dramatically. We have moved from a desire to throw off the yoke of the irrational and tyrannical forms of hereditary monarchy to an equally irrational and tyrannical desire to throw off the moderating and educating effect of decency and morality. It is as though we have drawn up an illicit agreement with the nay-sayers of democracy during the Founding generation. They said we would degenerate without the moderating principle of monarchy; we argued that we had successfully replaced it with free elections. We argued that our aristocracy, being natural, was even better than the artifice of monarchy.

But it is worse than just a simple abandonment of standards. After all, the Founders knew that there would not always be men of the caliber of Washington available. For that reason they crafted institutions that would safeguard against the tyrannous impulses of less than perfect men. But today we have thrown that caution to the wind. For with the deterioration of our expectations in character, we have witnessed a simultaneous increase–in number and degree–of our expectations from government, and subsequently a significant change in our institutions. Though their appearance together is no proof of their relation, a fair case can be made that links the abandonment of principle with the abandonment of our institutions.

The transformation of American politics included within it a movement away from a politics measured by its character, prudence, and morality and toward a politics measured by the things one gets as a result. We have replaced statesmanship with used-car salesmanship. We elect our congressmen and senators not for their principled positions and manly composure, but rather for the sake of getting one up in promoting our causes or particular interests. In other words, we have reintroduced the virus of faction; and we have done so most clearly with the creation and maintenance of the welfare state.

Whereas the principles that animated the politics of the Founding generation promoted the protection and safeguarding of liberty, the principles that animate the politics of the welfare state promote the protection and safeguarding of entitlements. Instead of securing the blessings of liberty (i.e., an equal chance for all to become members of that natural aristocracy), entitlements enslave us in much the same way that the artificial forms of old enslaved our forefathers. In both cases we are subject to the rule of mediocrity. For instead of allowing for the rise of a natural aristocracy, it promotes the interests of separate and disparate groups, giving them primacy over individuals who have proven their worth and merit.

The men of the Founding generation fought and died not only for the right to govern themselves, but also in order to prove to a candid world the ability of free men to govern themselves well. To secure good government, the Founders knew that good institutions that promoted the liberty of individuals was necessary. But they also knew that in order to protect those institutions, it was important that men of sound character and habits were able to rise to
prominence. The Founders knew (as Mr. Limbaugh knows today) that character matters.

Julie Kessler, a former Ashbrook Scholar, is pursuing her Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate
School in Claremont, California.

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