Character matters in political leadership
Donald Trump’s electoral humiliation this week has many roots. But to leadership historians it was perhaps, most of all, a judgement of character by American women. A record number of women voted against him, and for a record number of new women in Congress and at the state level.
Make no mistake, Trump did get thumped. Not only losing control of the House, but at least six governorships, and more than 300 state level seats. Yes, he was able to save Ted Cruz and two racist gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Georgia. But one and two point-victories give each side a night to celebrate.
Beto O’Rourke is now only a few thousand votes from ousting the detestable Texas senator next time. Women according to exit polls favoured Democrats over Trump by an astonishing 24 points. It was their revulsion at this president that told the tale on Tuesday night.
It was a fascinating gamble by Democrats. They ran more than three times as many women candidates nationally and at the state level than the GOP. Old time Democratic organizers grumbled quietly about the primary victories of 20-something, avowed socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But women pushed them across the finish line, also electing Native American, Muslim, LGBTQ, and African American women along with her. Why? I would argue because events and #MeToo have made more women tougher judges of character in politics. “Is he trustworthy?” is the new acid test.
A leader who has lied and cheated his way through life may be able to deflect attention from his hollow soul for a time, but character will out. Short-term success is possible with no moral compass, but in the important tests of leadership Trump is doomed to fail. What this election may have demonstrated is that women today, more than men, are sensitive to fraudulent male politicians. Some men’s continuing greater willingness to cast a blind eye to character flaws in favour of tax cuts or job promises, no longer cut it with women. It appears to have an echo in Canada.
Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have enormous gender gaps with women voters. Perhaps it is simply a coincidence that they are also the two Canadian politicians who most openly ape the Trump narrative. That seems unlikely. Interestingly, there is not such a wide disparity in support across gender lines for any of the three federal leaders. Again, it may be a coincidence that each is seen to be a man of character, if of differing political capability.
Character is a difficult quality to assess, but obvious in its absence. The greatest Canadian leaders shared courage, vision, and determination — demonstrating character with the hardest choices. Bill Davis on separate school funding. Allan Blakeney on mining uranium. Pierre Trudeau on divorce, homosexuality and Asian immigration. You need not agree with their judgment to respect its courage.
As the American presidential historian, Michael Beschloss said to Wall Street journalist columnist Peggy Noonan last week: “Choose a candidate whose values and life experience you feel comfortable with, so that you can be confident about the vast majority of political decisions they will make, if elected, that you will never hear about.” In other words, the leader whose character gives you confidence about their judgment, even when unseen.
Canadians respect compromise, or “mutual accommodation.” But the yang to that yin is a belief in hard truth-telling, transparency, and authentic commitment to their citizens by their leaders.
As another great historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin puts it, all great leaders have “an ambition for self that becomes an ambition for something larger.” Delivering on it takes character.
So here’s to the millions of American women voters and candidates who on Tuesday declared loudly that character matters; who rejected racism, sexism, and white nationalism in favour of a group of courageous, often young women, who collectively drew a line in the sand — daring Donald Trump to cross it.