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The Content of Our Character

The content of our nation's character is at stake in this election.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Let’s take a minute and reflect on what Martin Luther King meant when he talked about the content of character. This refers to the core ethical values of honesty and integrity, respecting others, taking responsibility for one’s actions, being fair and just, and being someone who promotes love and compassion in others. We can also think about the content of character in terms of core virtues and the extent to which one embodies wisdom, humility, courage, justice, temperance, and the value of human dignity.

Now ask yourself: Do you care about these values? Do you try to live up to these values? Do you care if your parents of children or friends have these characteristics? Do you care if your peers and co-workers have them? Do you care if our country embodies these values? If the answer is yes, then think about why you care about them. Along with, Dr. King, I would argue there is nothing that is more important.

Valuing the content of one’s character is not—or should not be—a partisan issue. Both Democrats and Republicans, indeed all of our country’s institutions, should value honesty, integrity, wisdom, and the promotion of human dignity. These are human values and they certainly have been voiced as American values that have (historically) transcended party membership and party affiliation. The reason that these values are so central is that they are the absolute cornerstones of a functional society. Our well-being—indeed our very existence—depends the content of our character and the character of our neighbors. And there is no one individual that is a greater reflection of our collective character than the president of the United States of America.

With this in mind, we need to reflect on what the two candidates represent in terms of character. The conservative columnist David Brooks highlighted just how important character was in his column, I Miss Barack Obama, where he talked about Obama’s “basic integrity,” a “basic humanity,” sound-decision making, grace under pressure, and “resilient optimism,” and summarized in his concluding paragraph that “Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance.” Whatever one thinks of Obama’s political philosophy and policy decisions, his life overwhelmingly evidences a man of genuinely good virtue.

Hillary Clinton would be hard-pressed to claim that she has the level of integrity of Obama, as the low public opinion of her trustworthiness suggests. And, as John Oliver rightfully notes in this Last Week Tonight bit on scandals, Clinton's relationship with the truth often leaves much to be desired. Her decision to use a private server and the way she talked about it, her claims about the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, and the way she maneuvered after Benghazi all leave elements to be desired at the level of integrity and honesty. But, counterbalancing these shady claims, it still is the case that Hillary Clinton has offered a lifetime of service and, by basic standards of honor, honesty, integrity (as for example, measured empirically by fact checkers) is a “normal” politician.

By all accounts, Donald Trump is not a normal politician. And he is perhaps most notably abnormal in regards to his character. Although many politicians are grandiose, he is diametrically opposed to humility and instead engages in constant self-aggrandizement. He offers virtually nothing that could be called wisdom. With regards to loyalty and fidelity, he is notorious for his extramarital affairs. With regards to empathy and compassion, examination of his treatment of Muslims, Latinos, John McCain, Rosie O’Donnell, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Gold Star Khan family, Alicia Machado—the list goes on and on—he has shown himself over and over to be an abusive bully who attempts to shame others into submission. With regards to integrity, it is easily documented that Donald Trump has a complete disregard for the truth (see here for some of the major lies he told last week), a fact that is empirically documented by political fact-checkers. As John Oliver notes in the clip mentioned above, the nature of the scandals that Trump has been involved in is qualitatively more damning than what Hillary has been involved in. In sum, the available data suggests that there is no equivalence between the candidates on the issue of character.

Given that the president of the United States is the single most important representative of the character of our nation, the choice before us is profound in its implications.

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