Char­ac­ter mat­ters in po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship

Toronto Star - - THE POLITICS PAGE - Robin V. Sears

Don­ald Trump’s elec­toral hu­mil­i­a­tion this week has many roots. But to lead­er­ship his­to­ri­ans it was per­haps, most of all, a judg­ment 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 pointvic­to­ries 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 Demo- crats 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 lead- er­ship, 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 truthtelling, 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 U.S. 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.

Robin V. Sears is a prin­ci­pal at Earn­scliffe Strat­egy Group, was an NDP strate­gist for 20 years, and is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor for the Star. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @robin­vsears

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