One of the hallmarks of our current time is that simple truths can often sound like radical dissent. To declare that “lying is wrong” in response to a grotesque falsehood is to invite an avalanche of whataboutism. Say that “political violence is evil,” and you’ll quickly be challenged to take sides and declare whether right or left is worse.
It’s not that people disagree with those statements, exactly. It’s just that granting their full truth carries uncomfortable implications.
Here’s another simple truth: Character matters. This is the political assertion that meets with perhaps the ultimate “yes, but” response. “Yes, but so does policy.” “Yes, but no one is perfect.” “Yes, but we need to fight fire with fire.” As a wise retired federal judge once told me, when someone says “Yes, but” the only words that matter come after the “but.” The “yes” is appeasement; the “but” is belief.
And so it is with this political moment. We live in a time of partisan animosity so great that an October NBC News poll found that 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans “believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it.”
In those circumstances, the quest for character becomes a form of luxury belief. It’s what you cling to in safer, more secure times. That same poll found that “two-thirds of reliable Democratic and Republican voters say they’d still support their party’s political candidate, even if that person had a moral failing that wasn’t consistent with their own values.”
While a decreasing emphasis on character is clearly a bipartisan problem, other polling indicates that the position of white evangelicals, in particular, has totally transformed on the matter. Between 2011 and 2016, white evangelicals went from the American demographic least likely to agree that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties” to the group most likely to agree with that statement.
This transformation made Donald Trump’s presidency possible, and it is a grave mistake. Good character should never be optional in leaders, and strength of character is more important in difficult times.
But it’s now wrong to simply assert that truth as self-evident. Millions of Americans disagree. They’re willing to hold their noses and vote for someone they might not even trust to manage a local McDonald’s and send them to the United States Congress, or even the White House, so long as they defeat the hated enemy on the other side.
Why are they wrong? The evidence is everywhere, if you know where to look. While bad policy can be extraordinarily consequential, our current political dysfunctions are mainly due to bad character. And if you vote for bad character to stop bad policy, you’re making the sickness worse.