Monday, May 28, 2007

Issues, Character, and Tuchman’s The March of Folly

With presidential elections, it is often said that character trumps issues. For example, from the 3/11/2007 USA Today:

A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll says 55% of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate.

Just one-third look first to candidates’ stances on issues; even fewer focus foremost on leadership traits, experience or intelligence.

Whenever I see a “character trumps issues” story, I feel like We the People are taking the easy way out. Compared to understanding the issues, deciding which candidate seems more honest is easy—not necessarily easy to get right, but easy in terms of effort required.

I’ve always assumed that was a bad thing. But having read The March of Folly by historian Barbara Tuchman, I may reconsider. Written in 1984, The March of Folly examines why various rulers and governments throughout history have pursued policies that were obviously counterproductive, not just to historians but to observers in their time.

The short answer is: leaders with bad character—specifically, corruption, misguided ambition driven by ego, and obliviousness to reality when the facts challenged an existing course of action. Near the end of the book, Tuchman says, “Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first.”

I don’t take this to mean, “ignore the issues.” However, in a modern democracy, most mainstream positions on issues average-out to something workable over time, as one side wins for a while and then the other. Most important to Tuchman is avoiding the occasional but disastrous policy or institution that goes uncorrected despite widely understood flaws and viable alternatives. In her view, the true disasters have historically been, and will continue to be, driven by leadership failures involving character. So when character differences between candidates are significant, she might literally want the best man or woman to win, as opposed to who she agrees with most.

That said, it’s worth noting that Tuchman’s key character flaws involve power’s corrupting and delusional influences. She is less concerned about personal vices or, for that matter, virtues such as heroism demonstrated in war. On this point she probably differs with some percentage of the poll respondents. But even if she gets there for different reasons, Tuchman’s version of “character first” is an interesting way to think about—and perhaps feel better about—what the majority of voters apparently do.


  1. Just to let you know, the author of the March of Folly is Barbra Tuchman, not Margaret.
    It was an interesting book, but slow and repetitive.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Cherylyn. I've fixed the original posting.