The Importance of Character is Increasing in American Politics

One of the extraordinary and confusing aspects of modern democratic societies is that people can spring—almost literally—from nowhere onto center stage.

You are a young African-American state senator from Illinois with extraordinary talents, living a relatively ordinary life. No one gasps or turns when you walk into a room; you are not a power hub in the state capital. You think you are special and destined for something more than obscurity, but this is still a private sentiment. At the age of 43, you are basically small potatoes. Then, suddenly, things start happening. You get enough backers to run for the United States Senate in a year when your party is taking on an unprecedentedly divisive Republican president. Far-seeing party leaders preparing for the National Convention gaze across the country and spot an up-and-comer from Illinois who they hear is good with words. They make you an offer: ive the keynote address at our convention, please. Suddenly, in one night, with one slightly awkward phrase about “the audacity of hope,” you embody the dreams of a nation.Or, you are a small-town mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, who knows what makes some people tick. Almost four years to the day after Barack Obama gave his convention address, it is the Republican Party that needs inspiration. Its leaders, worried and dissatisfied, are scanning the country for someone to enliven their suddenly somnolent base. You are tucked away in the Northwestern wilderness, where moose hunting is an everyday occurrence, but that actually works to your advantage. It makes you unique and telegenic. In your own way, you embody another part of America’s hopes and dreams. Suddenly, you are the Vice Presidential candidate of the party Lincoln founded. Not bad for a middle-class girl from the tundra. The rise of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and so many others (like an obscure Arkansas governor named Clinton) represents the sheer, awe-striking mobility of American society. It is part of what makes us great. We do not have a leadership class, exactly. Of course, we have professional politicians who people the halls of power in Washington, but most often they do not make it to the top of the ladder. Americans trust Arlen Specter and Robert Byrd with some of their business, but they are not going to give them the deciding vote. Why?

America likes people who remember what it is like to be normal. Seven years ago, State Representative Obama spent time in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital and my hometown, playing golf at Panther Creek country club. The President remembers being just another member of the crowd, even when he knew he was more. Here he has the jump on most five- and six-term senators, who know how to tread the halls of power but have forgotten how to live a life of normalcy. They want to connect with their constituents (they try Twittering), but at a basic level they have lost touch with what people value (70-year-old men tweeting does not top most Americans’ lists). It is a hard price to pay for prolonged influence.

Yet, you pay a price as well when you are catapulted suddenly to the top. You are living a whole new life, and that life is happening fast. Your enemies are numerous and made vicious by your sudden and seemingly undeserved rise. Your friends are ardent but hold high expectations. Then there are the people in the middle who have not quite decided whether you are Lincoln or Satan; winning them over is the ultimate goal, at least if you want the majority of the electorate on your side. None of this is easy, and it is an enduring irony of sudden political success that while circumstance may play a big part in propelling you to the stage, it takes real character to stay there. We may be a fickle nation (one minute Hillary is our prospective president, the next she is the ultimate also-ran), but once we give you our attention we are fairly exacting about what we want to see.We want gravitas, which means staying above the 24-hour news cycle. We want humor and a certain amount of self-deprecation; arrogance does not play well in the U.S. Most of all, we want the vision thing: Give us a context within which to view the world. Raise our sights, lift our spirits. Are we the city on the hill or the nation of hope and change? You decide, but once you do, sell your vision. Then, too, we want proof that you can actually govern. A lot of conservatives still liked Palin until she showed herself incapable of completing one term in the governor’s mansion. (Whatever else conservatives may be, they are eminently practical. They know that governing is hard, but that is why they elect strong leaders; if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.)

Now is an odd time—Americans are, more than during any other period in the past three decades, wary of the present and fearful of the future— and unknowns are rising fast. People want guidance, hope and perspective. Yesterday Joe Wilson was an obscure representative; today he is a lightning rod. Two years ago Al Franken was a comedian; now he is in the United States Senate. Can they keep the momentum? Can they stay on the stage? To make the arena your own, you need gravitas, humor, vision and grit. You need to pass the test of character, which is no easy task. In the end, of course, this helps the country. A lot of people fail the test, which means, when it really matters, we end up with the best.

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