CSR Conducts Survey on "The Politics of Character"

 Daily Progress Master Head

Character in politics confusing, study says

Daily Progress Staff Writer

Americans say they value character in their politicians, but voters define and use character loosely in their political behavior, a University of Virginia sociology professor says.

Professor James Davison Hunter is co-author of a report that found Americans recognize a need for strong moral character but display confusion and contradictory views about it. The report, “The Politics of Character,” found that the moral character of candidates “is trumpeted, but more as the absence of corruption than as the display of particular virtues.”

“Character, like God, has become a platitude — politically useful but neither commanding nor compelling in its directives,” said the report authored by Hunter, UVa’s W.R. Kenan professor of sociology, and Carl Bowman, a sociology professor at Bridgewater College.

The report, for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVa, is based in part on a survey conducted this fall of 1,200 Americans age 18 and older. They were interviewed by telephone for 25 minutes each by UVa’s Center for Survey Research.

“It seems as though Americans don’t have the capacity to look beyond the rhetoric of character,” Hunter said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not sure that voters care so much about the issues of character, about a principled public life, that they are capable of being motivated to seek it,” he said.

Hunter said the report “seems to suggest that image-making is more important than the substance of genuine leadership.” The report should encourage political consultants by reassuring them that their talents are still very much needed in American political life, he said.

“In sizing up candidates, [most American voters find it] important that they not have any egregious character flaws or really outrageous history of dubious behavior,” Hunter said. “Aside from that, my sense is that character matters mainly in its absence, not in its presence.”

Hunter said most Americans want their politicians to be “pretty much hard-nosed pragmatists.” Too much extraordinary virtue may even hurt a candidate, he said. “John McCain was clearly a man of character, and it probably hurt him,” Hunter said. “Alan Keyes was a man of genuine convictions. That probably hurts you.”

Character was very much a subtext of the campaigns of Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush this year, he said. “I think this was very much the meaning of ‘The Kiss’” that Gore gave his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic convention. There were attempts from both campaigns “to say, ‘We are not Clinton.’”

“Moral reflection in America is a lot like religion in America,” he said. “It’s a mile wide but an inch deep.”

In the survey, the vast majority agreed in principle with sentiments as old as America about virtue in a democratic society. For example, 90 percent agreed a democracy is only as strong as the virtue of its citizens, and 85 percent said schools should be involved in teaching values.

Confusion and contradiction, however, trumped coherent thinking about values, Hunter said. While 72 percent agreed with the statement that “all views of what is good are equally valid,” a sizable 77 percent also agreed that “we would be better off if we could all live by the same basic moral guidelines.”

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture conducts public opinion surveys to address the ideals, beliefs, values, symbols and public rituals that bind people together.