How Aristotelian Ethics Determine US Presidential Elections

By Victoria Princewill

London Salon Participant

When the American presidential election cycle is described, it’s usually done pejoratively. People lament the time it takes, the money involved, the celebrity-like nature of it, filled with performative gestures meant to convey sincerity. The system as it stands leaves a lot to be desired and the criticism levied is rarely wrong. Perhaps, however, there is another way to understand it, an underlying descriptor that helps illuminate the mechanisms. To that I end, I proffer: Aristotelian. The election cycle with its personality-oriented approach tends to place the spotlight on the character of the individual rather than their mandate. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics put character at the centre of virtue ethics, but considered the character as active, character involved a kind of doing. Unlike its counterparts in the ethics’ sphere, be it utilitarianism, deontology or consequentialism that tend to follow a system or a series of rules, Aristotelian virtue ethics is less about fixed rules than the imprecision of one’s character, one’s inner state of being. Aristotle held moral character to be something that developed over time and once established became consistent. Such a person could be entrusted to behave in a certain manner. Someone with the virtue of kindness could be counted upon to act kindly regardless of the situation or the people they are interacting with. In American politics, the focus on character over mandate seems to be born of the same philosophy — the question underlying the performative nature of the presidential election cycle asks is he a good man? and requires that the individual prove it to the electorate, in a series of staged events, debates and stump speeches.

We can look to recent history and see how the success of the Obama ’08 campaign was predicated on this assumption that he was not just a good man, but that he might even be a great one. Complaints throughout the Democratic primary race about his lack of experience washed right off because the electorate were uninterested in what could be tangibly promised. Clinton and McCain brought their experience to the role but that fell short in light of the potentiality of Obama’s hope. Was he a good man? People could not be sure, but he invoked his unlikely upbringing, his consistent desire to unify the blue and red states of America and brought them together under his continued banner of ‘hope’ against the odds. The electorate looked to that and saw someone who would bring that same determined hope to every future situation, they listened to his rhetoric and saw unwavering idealism that would persist regardless of circumstance. They took in his unconventional upbringing — white single mother, raised in Hawaii, studied at Columbia and Harvard Law and saw somebody who would persevere when things looked unlikely and was driven to succeed. The overwhelming strength of Obama’s character – and charisma – determined the election cycle, as it did his reelection. Romney, a conservative who pioneered a healthcare program that resembled Obama’s could not lure moderate Republicans to his corner, nor convince conservatives he would lead them. Critics deemed him robotic, former colleagues said similar. Was he a good man? People could not tell, but his policies lurched inconsistently from left to right in an attempt to reach various audiences. There was no character trait people could rely on to explain what Romney was like, no trait they guarantee would rise in the face of adversity. Perhaps the most consistent quality Romney had was his opacity and it was that more than anything, in the face of Obama’s overwhelming character, and despite a lukewarm first term, that lost him the presidency.

The Clinton/Trump election is where it appeared to go wrong. Here virtue ethics struggled to assess two characters who lacked any obvious inner convictions. Clinton had a ready mandate, a slew of policies, a wealth of experience. But who was she? She was a woman and this undoubtedly counted against her as much as any dearth of character but her inability to perform as a public figure, coupled with a long political career of pragmatism and a lack of consistent ideals, cost her just as much. Trump, by comparison was consistently inconsistent but within a framework of traits. His belligerent aggression towards the elite and minorities left most of his voters feeling trust, reassured that, though he was polarising, he was tilted in their favour. It was as though they had asked a mandate-question, what will he do for me? and sought the answer in his nebulous character, he will protect me without concerning themselves with how. The unconventional outcome reflected the atypical candidates. Clinton won the election, Trump got the nomination and much of the electorate stayed at home. The virtue ethicist outlook had failed liberal democracy.

There are fundamental reasons as to why the virtue ethicist approach usually works. A President’s mandate can only go so far — they will face the unexpected, expect to handle the unforeseeable. In choosing a President, Americans select someone whose behaviour they will trust when under pressure. The election cycle is itself a kind of pressure, giving the public the chance to see which virtues their candidates display under microscopic scrutiny. This is not an unreasonable perspective and yet in Trump, a candidate who won on character [and the flaws of the electoral college] we have a president who is woefully unprepared for office. His early failings have been wide ranging, from inadvertently signing substantial power over to a senior official, to violating existing ethics laws and pushing bigoted executive orders. We have a wildly dangerous person in power whose next moves we cannot predict. Virtue ethics didn’t fail in this regard, the election cycle gave us the fullest sense of who he is, but the sheer amount of destruction that he can do as President, the real range of his powers means that one cannot predict which tool he will use to enact a particular agenda, whether it serves his personal vendettas or his business practices.

So has this cost us liberal democracy? Will the attacks on our democratic freedoms continue after Trump’s [first] term or will its failure ricochet us back to a liberal democracy, this time rooted in mandate, terrified of the nebulous consequences that ‘character’-driven presidencies can open us up to? Character-driven politics is not a uniquely American invention but Angela Merkel’s unassuming statesmanship is often touted as a deliberate shift from the character driven politics that granted Germany its darkest point in history. Trump’s era looks to be American’s darkest presidency in recent years, or rather the first time its complicated morality is being held up to the light. Will it spell the end of character driven politics? Is it time to retire virtue ethics; is something more stringent like a mandate focused election our best option? The reality is that the public do not vote with their minds, they vote with their hearts and thus the focus on virtue ethics is less about the character the person portrays than how that character makes that audience feel. The next election needs to incorporate both, choosing character and mandate instead of one over the other. Americans need to return to that original question about whether a person is good and look to both policy and personality to satisfy it.