Is character important in this year’s presidential election? A recent poll suggests it is — and in a somewhat surprising way.
Many agree that character is essential to presidential decision-making. Whether a president possesses wisdom and virtue determines how laws are “faithfully executed,” who is appointed to political and judicial offices, whether we make war or peace, and how the federal government mobilizes for crises.
But there is another reason why character matters: the character of the American president significantly influences the character of the American people.
As presidential historian Barbara Perry has said, “The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend. ... And that’s why it’s so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.”
Americans in both parties agree. As a Yahoo News/YouGov poll reveals, 79% of respondents — including substantial majorities of both Democrats and Republicans — affirmed that the U.S. president should be “a role model for the nation’s children.”
This bipartisan consensus aligns with wisdom from the world’s major moral and religious traditions. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, among others, elevate exemplars as embodiments of wisdom and virtue. Philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists affirm that role models have a significant impact on our character.
Colleagues from the Oxford Character Project and I have analyzed this research to identify several functions of moral exemplars.
First, exemplars provide admirable models to emulate. Whether we realize it or not, we often look to our role models for patterns of how to live.
Second, exemplars inspire us to be better, producing a warm and uplifting feeling of “elevation” that calls forth our best selves. Looking to Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln — or everyday exemplars in our lives — can motivate us to become more courageous, just or honest.
Third, exemplars offer guidance about how to act in particular situations. Asking “what would my exemplar do?” can help us make difficult moral decisions.
Finally, exemplars prove that particular ideals can be realized. Seeing a role model serve others or forgive an adversary demonstrates that acts of virtue also are possible for us. Exemplars normalize such behaviors and encourage us to act likewise.
If exemplars can have such a powerful influence on character — either for better or worse — it matters who becomes our next exemplar in chief.
Will they model virtue or vice? Will they have the empathy to understand those of us who are different and help those of us who are hurting? Or will they be callous, cruel and indifferent to suffering?
Will they give us what we are due and ensure liberty and justice for all, especially those of us who have been denied liberty and justice? Or will they perpetuate injustice, mistreat opponents and disadvantage some citizens?
Will they have the humility to admit when they are wrong, or will they arrogantly insist on their own way?
Will they tell the truth when it is unpopular, or will they mislead with lies and half-truths?
Will they have the courage to do what is right, or will they allow or even do wrong?
Will they have the wisdom and restraint to advance the common good, or will they act only in their self-interest?
These are some of the questions at stake in a presidential election. How we answer will reflect our character as much as the character of the next president, as our Founders knew.
In 1788, when our Constitution hung in the balance, James Madison defended the “great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select (leaders) of virtue and wisdom.”
If there is “no virtue among us,” he declared, “we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government, can render us secure.”
Other Founders agreed. “The Preservation of Liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral Character of the People,” John Adams wrote. “Virtue or morality,” warned George Washington in his Farewell Address, “is a necessary spring of popular government.”
This November, what popular government will spring from our character? What kind of exemplars will we be for our children, friends and fellow citizens? What values and virtues will we serve with our votes?
In this election, our decisions will determine not only who the next president will be, but who we will be.
Michael Lamb is executive director of the Program for Leadership and Character and Assistant Professor of Politics, Ethics, and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wake Forest University. With Eranda Jayawickreme, he is the co-project leader of an international research network studying “Exemplar Interventions to Develop Character.”