Evaluating the Character of Our Presidential Candidates

Now that we have entered the stage of the 2024 U.S. Presidential election where Donald Trump and Nicky Haley as well as Marianne Williamson and Vivek Ramaswamy have announced their participation, it is not too early for voters to think about how such candidates should be evaluated.  Such an evaluation, while incorporating many factors, will certainly not focus on policy, as those candidates with serious intentions of becoming President, whether in the Democratic or Republican primaries, will be advocating policies that correspond to the wishes of each party’s base.  If not policy, then what should be the first factor that voters focus on when making their evaluation?

According to Edmund Burke in his writing Thoughts on the Present Discontents, “of all things, we ought to be the most concerned, who and what sort of men they are that hold the trust of everything that is dear to us.” Therefore, voters should begin their evaluation by focusing on a candidate’s character—”the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some [that] person.”

Yet, for the typical American voter, an evaluation of a candidate’s character does not appear to be a high priority.  That does not mean that some aspects of a candidate’s character have not been of some curiosity to voters.  When I was much younger, I recall that if a Presidential candidate was found to be unfaithful to his spouse, that usually meant the end of his candidacy.  For example, the 1988 Presidential campaign of Gary Hart.  However, such a litmus test is clearly not an adequate substitute for a rigorous study of a candidate’s overall character.

Why we seem to give character such short shrift is perhaps because we feel that our Constitution’s separation of powers will always be there to protect us.  If so, then we should immediately dispose of that notion.  As Edmund Burke warned in Thoughts on the Present Discontents, valuing the structure of government over character of its leaders will not protect us from disastrous results:

The laws reach but a very little way. Constitute Government how you please, infinitely the greater part of it must depend upon the exercise of the powers which are left at large to the prudence and uprightness of Ministers of State. Even all the use and potency of the laws depends upon them. Without them, your Commonwealth is no better than a scheme upon paper; and not a living, acting, effective constitution.

If voters had heeded Burke’s advice back in 2016, it is highly unlikely that we would have experienced two Presidential impeachments, the storming of the Capital, and a President accused of insurrection and seditious conspiracy.  So, much is to be gained by first focusing on a candidate’s character.

But what is the criteria for determining a candidate’s character?  For this we can look to the wisdom of Cicero, perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the last two millennia and a great influence in the thinking of Edmund Burke and so many others, including this country’s founders.

Cicero, in his famous writing, De Officiis (On Duties or Appropriate Actions), felt that the leadership of the Roman Republic, the Republic that he so loved, should only be entrusted to those with the most honorable character—a character infused with the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and propriety.  Moreover, these virtues must be applied without self-interest:

A serious and courageous citizen worthy of preeminence in the commonwealth will surrender himself completely to the     commonwealth, and will pursue neither influence nor power; instead, he will protect the whole commonwealth so as to take into consideration the interests of everyone…. He will so completely adhere to justice and honorableness that so long as he preserves them, no matter how grievous the setback to himself, he would rather meet death than abandon those things I mentioned. 

Talking of a leader’s character in such aspirational terms, especially adhering to justice and honorableness in the context of the “whole body politic,” seems to be totally out of sync with today’s political environment.  However, discussing the character of a Presidential candidate in terms of Cicero’s high standards would be of enormous benefit to the electorate.  While almost all candidates will certainly come up short, it is critically important for voters to know how much they come up short and whether, in the eyes of voters, this will disqualify a candidate from holding office.

But even if voters do their due diligence in assessing the character of a Presidential candidate, there is still the risk that once in office, a different aspect of a candidate’s character will be revealed.  As Burke said in his letter, On the Genius and Character of the French Revolution as it Regards Other Nations, “Nothing, indeed, but the possession of some power can with any certainty discover what at the bottom is the true character of any man.” If so, then voters must study the candidate’s character that much harder in order to minimize the risk of electing a candidate with the wrong character.  Such work is an imperative, as the welfare of our nation rests on it.