As a Canadian, I have been forced to think a lot over the last few years about the importance of character in politics. Stephen Harper, the current Canadian Prime Minster, has been widely criticized for vindictive, ruthless, secretive and hyper-partisan behaviors, by both left- and right-wing pundits. Those who support Harper as PM largely do so based on his policies, in spite of his character failings (e.g., see The Globe and Mail’s 2011 endorsement). He is a sound economic manager, they argue; in today’s tough economy, this is worth putting up with a few omnibus bills, scandals and attack-ads. Indeed, good character seems like something we applaud but seldom vote for, at least on its own.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of character in a governing leader. Venture capitalists scrutinize entrepreneurs, as well as their business plans, when deciding where to invest. Similarly, scientific grant review bodies evaluate both the proposal and the proposing scientist (e.g., NSERC). They understand that the best business managers and the best scientists are the ones that can and want to learn, that follow the evidence, and that pivot quickly when conditions shift around them. When they fail, they “fail fast”. This requires humility, curiosity and adaptability, supported by a deep commitment to an objective, not a strategy.
These are the qualities I look for in a politician. I want a politician in office who is committed, above all else, to objectives of societal betterment – economic growth, broadly-shared prosperity, sustainability, equal opportunity, peace and security – to name a few. When it comes to getting us there, I don’t want a politician who is blindly committed to policy dogmas – either conservative or liberal. I want a politician who is a tireless student, scrutinizing their policies with as much evidence as possible, and pivoting them when the evidence is clear that they should.
I want a politician with integrity. Politicians with integrity are able to take unpopular or controversial positions, despite the political costs, when they are right – like when U.S. President Eisenhower sent troops into Arkansas to enforce desegregation in 1957. Politicians with integrity are able to break promises when changing circumstances demand it. Stephen Harper doesn’t impress me by backloading infrastructure funding and delaying the release of his budget to keep his balanced budget promise, despite sagging growth and tanking oil revenues. This will only exacerbate growth sluggishness and weaken investor confidence. George H.W. Bush raising taxes, despite very publicly promising not to, after ballooning deficits (and to some extent, the Democrats) forced his hand, does impress me.
A politician without scruples should scare you, even if their platform sounds good. Even if their record is good. In the summer of 1968, peace talks between the North and South Vietnamese and the U.S. were showing signs of progress, with the U.S. agreeing to halt bombing on the North in October after significant concessions. But 1968 was an election year in the U.S.. Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, was afraid that a major breakthrough orchestrated by a Democrat President (Lyndon Johnson) right before the election might ruin his chances of winning the presidency. So he sent his aides to backchannel with the South Vietnamese – persuading them to pull out of the talks until after the election (on the promise of a better deal). The war ended up dragging on for 5 more years, costing the lives of 22,000 more Americans and millions of Vietnamese. In other words, when it came down to it, Nixon was willing to put his personal ambitions ahead of both the national interest and the lives of thousands of his fellow citizens.
Not every politician of questionable character does something this egregious, though not every politician is given the chance. But when we elect officials, we are nonetheless asking them to make important decisions on our behalf every day. A candidate’s platform, at face value, is a roadmap of tomorrow’s decisions based on today’s information. We would be naive to expect those decisions to be perfect; and we would be shortsighted to hold the candidate to those decisions if tomorrow’s information was different from today’s. The most useful information we can learn about a candidate is their decision-making process. What are their objectives? How do they pick their strategies? Whose interest are they serving? Much more than we may think, these are questions of character.