Politics and Love

What is Basic Presidential Competence (and Why is It Important?)

We have a presidential election coming up in a few weeks. Frequently when we vote for a president (or any candidate), it is easy to vote simply along party lines. If we are Republican, we vote Republican. If we are Democrat, we vote Democrat.

It certainly simplifies things, and this is not always a bad strategy to adopt.

However, I would suggest that one of the most important criteria for deciding on a presidential candidate is something I call Basic Presidential Competence. Basic Presidential Competence is set of character and intellectual dispositions that make it more likely, whether a candidate is Democrat or Republican (or something else), that the United States will emerge from the candidate’s tenure in office with greater political integrity.

Picture by Joshua Sukoff, courtesy of Unsplash

A country’s political integrity is a type of inner strength and stability that increases the more the people in the nation believe that a president has a clear intention to act fairly and justly; to treat everyone with dignity; to pursue the well-being of the country and its citizens; and to put the good of the country above his own personal interests.

No president can do all these things perfectly at all times, but it is imperative that candidates regularly communicate through their actions and words that these are their consistent intentions, even when they make mistakes and even fail sometimes in the process.

When presidents do this, they strengthen a country’s political integrity, and the more likely the people in the nation are to continue to support the political process, even if they don’t agree with all of a president’s particular policies.

Photo by Parker Johnson, courtesy of Unsplash

The political integrity of a country is important because when people stop believing in the political process, they are more likely to resort to acts of domestic terrorism and violent revolution.[1]

Unfortunately, because the political climate in the U.S. is very polarized right now, people often believe that the most important thing, politically speaking, is that they elect candidates from their own party who support their favored policies on issues like abortion, taxation, LGTBQ issues, religion, or war.

Most certainly these issues are important. But it is crucial to note that there is a range of views one could hold about these issues and still pursue political integrity. (You can read more a out this here and here.) Stated another way: All countries with strong political integrity express care for their citizens consistently (even if imperfectly) through words and actions, and there is a variety of ways a country can express this care.

On the other hand, it is possible for a candidate to support all the policies you hold dear but to act in such a way that destroys political integrity. If this is the case, it would be better for you to vote for a candidate from another party who preserves political integrity. Voting for a candidate who favors your political policies but who weakens political integrity is a shortsighted move. Even if your candidate wins, the win is a Phyrric victory[2].  For example, you may inadvertently encourage destructive social unrest and political violence by voting for a candidate who weakens the country’s political integrity.

Back to Basic Presidential Competence

This brings us back to the ideas of Basic Presidential Competence. The more consistently a candidate holds certain character and intellectual dispositions, the more likely he or she is to strengthen the political integrity of the country. Because political integrity is directly tied to a candidate’s intention to act consistently with fairness, justice, dignity, and a sincere desire to promote the well-being of the citizen and the country above his own self-interest, these are some of the characteristics most directly tied to Basic Presidential Competence:

#1: The president (or candidate) consistently shows that he has a strong grasp of the US Constitution and that he is willing to be held accountable by other branches of the government.

#2: The president (or candidate) shows a consistent effort to listen to experts in various political, social, and medical matters (especially in areas where he lacks expertise) and to allow their expertise to inform his presidential policies.

#3: The president (or candidate) shows a consistent effort to work with people from other parties and to listen to the concerns of all U.S. citizens.

#4: The president (or candidate) is open to constructive criticism and shows a consistent desire to learn from his mistakes.

#5: The president (or candidate) is willing to work with and be held accountable by a variety of news outlets of different political persuasions.

#6: The president (or candidate) consistently shows respect for the dignity of all human beings.

#7: The president (or candidate) operates from a clear and apparent set of ethical principles that aim at both his good and the good of everyone in the U.S., and his life conduct has consistently demonstrated high ethical standards.

#8: The president (or candidate) consistent communicates in a way that demonstrates clear, evidence-based, critical thinking.

#9: The president (or candidate) shows a willingness to consider other people’s points of view.

#10: The president (or candidate) refrains from speech that could be construed as prejudiced, racially motivated, or influenced by derogatory views about women.

Photo by John Bakator, courtesy of Unsplash

But What about the Problem of Bias?

One possible concern people might express over the notion of Basic Presidential Competence is that people are naturally biased and, therefore, everyone tends to believe that their candidate possesses Basic Presidential Competence, while the other one lacks it.

Bias is certainly something to be aware of, and we all tend to possess it. It is important to note, however, that remaining blinded by bias is not an inevitability. There are thinking habits one can learn to overcome the natural biases we possess.

For the sake of this post, I would like to recommend an exercise that you can do to help you overcome bias and consider whether your preferred candidate possesses Basic Presidential Competence.

The Outside Consultant Exercise

Imagine that you are an outside political consultant from another country whom a bi-partisan Think Tank hired to give an objective, non-biased view of U.S. political leaders. You have a high school education and two years of college education as well. You are neither Democrat nor Republican, and you are not aware of any of the hot U.S. political issues nor any U.S. political figures.[3]

The Think Tank has isolated you in a room by yourself for three weeks. There is no TV, radio, or computer in the room, but it is very comfortable, and you are well-fed with all your favorite foods and snacks. You have a lovely, comfortable bed to sleep in, and you are well-compensated for your time.

During your three weeks, you are not allowed to read or listen to any news, and you are not allowed to talk to anyone other than members of the Think Tank. All you are permitted to do is read your candidate’s own Tweets or posts on social media and watch videos of him speaking at rallies of at White House conferences. You are also permitted to read transcripts of his speeches and interviews he has done with various people.

You have also been assigned to read the U.S. Constitution and to read original primary documents from the original Continental Congresses in which the Constitutional writers debated various parts of the Constitution.

If you need background information on the information you are reading—for instance, the identity of people the candidate refers to or the events to which he is referring—several members of the Think Tank are permitted to answer your questions with basic factual responses only.

Photo by Thought Catalog, courtesy of Unsplash

Lastly, you also have a dossier on the candidate’s life, which has been compiled by the bi-partisan Think Tank. It contains basic facts about the candidate’s early years, his education, his marriages, his political and business ventures, as well as several scandals associated with the candidate, as well as several notable successes.

At the end of the three weeks, the Think Tank asks you to rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 low and 10 high) on the following ten criteria. They also tell you that they have ten other people in ten other rooms just like you, and they ask you to write a written statement providing consistent evidence from the candidate’s own Tweets, social media posts, and speeches that clearly support the ratings you have given for the criterion below so that you can justify your claims to the other consultants. The Think Tank wants to gauge the overall impression of the consultants.

Here are the criteria again, for your convenience.

Criteria

#1: The president (or candidate) consistently shows that he has a strong grasp of the US Constitution and that he is willing to be held accountable by other branches of the government.

#2: The president (or candidate) shows a consistent effort to listen to experts in various political, social, and medical matters (especially in areas where he lacks expertise) and to allow their expertise to inform his presidential policies.

#3: The president (or candidate) shows a consistent effort to work with people from other parties and to listen to the concerns of all U.S. citizens.

#4: The president (or candidate) is open to constructive criticism and shows a consistent desire to learn from his mistakes.

#5: The president (or candidate) is willing to work with and be held accountable by a variety of news outlets of different political persuasions.

#6: The president (or candidate) consistently shows respect for the dignity of all human beings.

#7: The president (or candidate) operates from a clear and apparent set of ethical principles that aim at both his good and the good of everyone in the U.S., and his life conduct has consistently demonstrated high ethical standards.

#8: The president (or candidate) consistent communicates in a way that demonstrates clear, evidence-based, critical thinking.

#9: The president (or candidate) shows a willingness to consider other people’s points of view.

#10: The president (or candidate) refrains from speech that could be construed as prejudiced, racially motivated, or influenced by derogatory views about women.

How Did Your Preferred Candidate Do?

How did your candidate rate? If you would like to keep working on overcoming your own bias, I recommend that you go back and to the same exercise with the other political candidate running for office.

A Parting Consideration

Sometimes it is easy to treat politics as a type of high-stakes game: we want our side to win no matter what.

Please consider that politics is indeed about you and your “team”, but it is about everyone else, as well. And, in fact, politics is not only about you and everyone else, it is about the game itself—in this case, the pursuit of political integrity.

You could play this game in a way in which you only think about yourself or your “team”, but if you do so, you may inadvertently undermine the game itself, and you can’t very well keep playing the game if it has been destroyed.

I would suggest that the best games are not the games in which everyone tries to win, no matter the cost. The best games are the ones in which the players respect themselves, each other, and the game AND they play in such a way to preserve the game integrity, even if that means their side loses sometimes.

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[1] One of the clearest historical examples of this in history is the French Revolution. France had become dominated by a very wealthy minority aristocratic and clergy class that organized French society in such a way that they had almost all the goods and power. The majority of people in France were impoverished, sick and starving, and could be imprisoned indefinitely, with no trial, for little or no reason at all. Eventually the French people became so desperate, they initiated the French revolution, which (tragically) turned into a bloodbath in which some revolutionaries seized governmental power; initiated a Reign of Terror; and began guillotining folks they decided were enemies of the people, many of whom turned out to be the poor and impoverished, on behalf of whom the revolutionaries were supposed to be fighting in the first place. I am not suggesting, of course, that bloodbaths are the inevitable result of the loss of political integrity. I am suggesting that the more the political integrity of a country suffers, the more its citizens become convinced that they cannot protect and provide for themselves through the political process. This can cause them to act in desperate ways.

[2] A Phyrric victory is a victory that comes at such a heavy cost, it might as well be a defeat. This sayings comes from Phyrrus, a Greek leader who suffered devastating victories against the Romans that, while technically a win for him, were so ruinous, he said, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” I would suggest there are Phyrric political victories.

[3] If you are concerned that the objective observers in this scenario are too strongly influenced by the country they grew up in, especially if it is too different from the U.S., imagine that the objective observers are all the adult children of U.S. medical workers that worked in other countries. The parents grew up in the U.S. and were educated in U.S. schools but were almost completely apolitical because they were so focused on their medial practice.

Their children (now the adult objective observers hired as consultants) grew up in a variety of countries—both European and non-European, first and third-world countries, and were home-educated with a variety of home school materials used in both public and private U.S. schools. They have lived in countries that were socialist, communist, and capitalist. For their history and government curriculum, they mainly read primary historical sources and the Constitution. They have had little to no exposure to television or news sources.

 

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