The question of politics versus character is as old as the hills and has been a continuing debate from time immemorial, chewed over by nearly every political chin-puller since Plato. In Botswana, as is the case in some parts of the world, trends are that the electorates follow the party and the driver’s incapacitations are inconsequential.
The Americans are today the laughing stock of every nation. They have elected into their highest and most sanctified office a man with a defective character; an exaggerator who mistreats and bullies subordinates, a man who ignores advisors and a non-conformer to standards of normalcy. Despite his countless successes in life, Donald Trump’s character has attracted mockery to Americans and their beautiful country. But Trump is not to blame, for he was voted for. It is not only Trump. The world, with Africa at the forefront, is currently where it is because of the ‘hidden characters’ behind our publicly virtuous presidents.
Political commentator and scholar Mark Tapson once said many people enter the political arena with a genuine commitment to civil service or a passion to change the world, but politics has always attracted a disproportionate share of scoundrels with a bottomless lust for power and self-aggrandisement. History, Tapson says, is littered with examples of leaders of dubious character or worse whose only contribution has only been to destroy the country and its people’s hopes.
Author Richard Reeves opines that character is felt not only when communities collapse into a brief, riotous war of all against all, but in many long-standing areas that are vital for human flourishing.
Traditionally, in psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the term “character” has been used to refer to constellations or configurations of behavioural traits. Renowned psychologist and social commentator, Ntombi Setshwaelo, told this publication that “for so many years Batswana have not cared to look at the character aspect when electing political leaders but only consider their loyalty to the party and popularity.”
According to her, “we must consider the best representative for the country and ourselves as we would for our families and institutions”. Character, she says, defines you and your path. “Choose a candidate whose values and life experience you feel comfortable with, this will given you confidence and hope about the future and the vast majority of political decisions they will make,” she says, adding: “We fail dismally to connect our political decisions and elections to our struggles today and future struggles of our children.”
Setshwaelo notes that Botswana needs more than cheerleaders. “We need a man or woman of integrity with a proven track record, a trustworthy person, experienced, of good temperament and judgment.” She adds that a closer look suggests that we have seriously regressed in recent times in this regard.
The 2019 general elections seem headed toward a showdown between two presidential candidates, Duma Boko of the Umbrella for Democratic Change and Mokgweetsi Masisi of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. There are, however, other bidders , some of very intriguing character but with very slim chances to state power, thanks to lack of a law on direct election of the president. In politics, raising one’s hand automatically subjects one to public scrutiny, and while character can lead to one’s downfall, other scholars and philosophers posit that in modern politics success has nothing to do with a man’s character.
The ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus (or Heraklitos), wrote at the dawn of Western philosophy that “ethos anthropoi daimon,” meaning “man’s character is his fate or the destiny of a man is his character.” This view was later advanced by several moral philosophers. These views were, however, obliterated by the controversial Italian Philosopher Machiavelli in his most famous work, “The Prince,” when he expressed the view that any means can be used if it is necessary to maintain political power. Political observers say this view laid the foundation of modern politics.
“If a prince wants to maintain his rule, he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need. There are times when a prince, to preserve his rule, must lie, cheat, dissemble, flatter the mob, and even kill his rivals and enemies, while preserving the appearance of virtue to the degree it is necessary,” argued Machiavelli.
Machiavelli taught that “a prince must choose his advisors wisely because he will be judged by their competence and he may be undone by their treachery. A wise prince, he said, must be partly a lion to scare off wolves, partly a fox to smell out traps. He warned: “But it is not to his advantage to gain a reputation as a liar or someone not to be trusted. One must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver.” Machiavelli’s teaching was controversial in its time, but it was also influential. Shakespeare is said to have referred to him as “the evil Machiavelli.”
Author and political analyst James Piereson, in his work A Note on Character in Politics, says Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, picked up on Machiavelli’s themes in attributing the fall of Rome partly to the spread of Christianity through the empire, with debilitating effects on Roman spirit and patriotism. “That Christian morality is not always compatible with the requirements of statecraft. Modern politics, following Machiavelli, rests upon a foundation of competing interests in recognition of the fact that, when push comes to shove, interests will trump morals.”
James Madison, he says, wrote in The Federalist that a modern state must be constructed on a foundation of interest, not of morality and virtue. Interest in the end is a more reliable foundation than virtue. “If Trump’s character is his destiny, then it is hard to understand how he managed to come as far as he has through the ups and downs of a business career and now election to the highest office in the land. If we take his critics at their word, then Trump’s bad character should have taken him out of the business world and certainly out of the presidential race a long time ago,” he pointed out.
Tapson, however, argues that unethical behaviour has very real consequences for us as individuals and as a society. “If we allow our leaders to adopt Machiavelli or Boss Tweed as their political guide, we will all be dragged down. If, out of moral cowardice or political expediency or simple cynicism, we are indifferent to a lack of character in our own President, then we are dooming ourselves and certainly our children to a more degraded world,” he says. Our policies, he says, must be grounded not in expediency or ideology but in morality. “What example are we setting for our citizens, for our children, for the rest of the world, if we don’t elect a Leader of the Free World who embodies the character qualities we claim to admire,” he says.
“None of us could survive the sort of relentless media scrutiny applied to most presidential candidates without embarrassing revelations or worse coming to light. But that is no excuse for minimising or rejecting the importance of character altogether. We expect the highest professionalism and morality from our police officers, judges, doctors, teachers, etc and we are rightly judgmental of those authority figures when they are found guilty of moral failure. Why should we not hold our political leaders, particularly the person we elect to the highest office in the land, to those same ethical standards,” he says before concluding that any time we choose to set our principles aside in order to buy time or survival, we are making a deal with the Devil, and what will we do when the payment is due and do we really believe we would be able to “stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
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