The Character Myth

The Character Myth

To counter Bush, the Democrats must present a different version of a safe world.


If progressives want to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election, they first have to understand the sources of his continuing popularity. The good news is that Bush is looking much less invincible than he was just a few months ago. As unemployment remains high and as the casualty list in Iraq grows longer, targets of opportunity are emerging for the Democratic candidates. For example, Bush’s job approval rating has declined to 52 percent in the latest Time/CNN poll.

Yet Bush remains quite popular by historical standards. Moreover, the task that lies ahead for any Democrat is a daunting one, for a more fundamental reason than what Americans think about Bush’s job performance. By repeatedly insisting that only he has the tools and the determination to fend off terrorism in the post-September 11 era, Bush has cultivated feelings of crisis, pessimism, anxiety and a loss of control throughout the nation [see Brooks, “A Nation of Victims,” June 30]. He has instilled a sense of dependency in Americans–and found a place in their minds and hearts as the repository of strength, action and control. The electorate passively and often subconsciously relies on his authority and power to act on their behalf. This is why Americans consistently find ways to justify Bush and to convince themselves that he is doing a good job, even when his actions and policies are opposed to their beliefs and values.

But this core of support is not merely a result of post-September 11 patriotism or of the fact that Bush is perceived as a likable, regular guy, as the conventional wisdom has it. The President and his advisers have deliberately cultivated an image and leadership style that fosters these results.

Bush’s handlers project the President as a man of character. His team has carefully crafted an image of him as a man who is strong and moral, someone who sticks to his principles and is capable of making tough decisions. This phenomenon was foretold by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who warned: “Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”

Theory soon became reality. Ronald Reagan was the first American politician to demonstrate the power of what I call the character myth, a project launched by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, whose biography of him was titled When Character Was King. The character myth relies on the psychological phenomenon that a person who speaks frequently and passionately about morals is generally regarded as a moral person. According to the character myth, a person who demonstrates that he has “character” need not present any evidence in support of his policies or decisions. They are simply assumed to be correct, since they come from a person with the ineffable quality known as “character.” Even though Reagan was divorced and many of his Hollywood friends hardly saw him as a paragon of morality, he managed to present himself in politics as an exemplar of “family values.” Reagan was seen as having character for sticking to his principles. He was widely viewed as someone who cut taxes, even after actually raising them. Americans simply ignored all data that did not fit the myth.

Similarly, Bush’s handlers use the rhetoric of morality to bypass people’s resistance to his ideas and to convince them that they should not go beyond their core belief that “Bush is doing the right thing.” This imagery of strength and morality is inspired by the ideas of conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, who has strongly influenced many within the inner circle of the Bush Administration. As James Atlas wrote in a piece on Strauss in the May 4 New York Times, “To [some] theorists, the Bush administration’s foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation. Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, has been identified as a disciple of Strauss; William Kristol, founding editor of The Weekly Standard, a must-read in the White House, considers himself a Straussian; Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, an influential foreign policy group started by Mr. Kristol, is firmly in the Strauss camp. One is reminded of Asa Leventhal, the hero of Saul Bellow’s novel ‘The Victim,’ who asks his oppressor, a mysterious figure named Kirby Allbee, ‘Wait a minute, what’s your idea of who runs things?’ For those who believe in the power of ideas, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to answer: the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss.” Strauss feared the mediocrity that he believed was inherent in democratic societies. He argued that when a strong political leader explains his policies he should develop a mythology for the consumption of the general public that hides his true motivations, because the people will not accept the boldness of the leader’s initiatives if they are presented in an unvarnished fashion. This mythology should use the language of morality to mask the candidate’s real interests, which are his own survival in power and his ability to continue to exert dominance over the populace.

Psychologists have long understood that people who hold views that are mutually inconsistent, or who perform actions that depart from their values or that threaten their positive self-image, will experience discomfort. This is known as cognitive dissonance. People naturally choose to remove the discomfort through rationalization, thus repairing their self-image as people who are reasonable and moral and act in ways consistent with their values. Bush’s leadership style and use of language essentially have created cognitive dissonance in the electorate. The more that Americans observe the Bush presidency pushing policies they do not support, and would normally question, the more they confront the choice of whether to oppose him actively or rationalize away their discomfort. Many Americans have chosen the latter because the President has convinced them that the situation is desperate and that only he can handle the continuing crisis. The more they depend upon Bush, the more they rationalize away any objections they may have to his specific ideas and policies. In this manner, Bush has forged an emotional, visceral relationship with the nation, successfully bypassing conscious resistance and stripping away any sense that he needs to answer to a higher legal or constitutional authority beyond his personal moral force.

President Bush wields the power of a stern, authoritarian parent over the national psyche. Just as such a parent may justify a command with the words “because I said so,” Bush has often reverted to explanations in the style of “it’s the right thing to do” in order to justify the war on Iraq or his tax cuts. By changing frames in this manner, a political leader can erode resistance to his actions. His shifting, ultimately arbitrary reasoning deters any listener from challenging his ideas and even leads the listener to believe herself or himself incapable of understanding the reasons given for policies or actions.

When people feel overwhelmed, as I believe Americans have been over the past few years, they tend not to think rationally about complex details. Further, many psychologists, sociologists and historians argue that Americans are prone to believe in the Great Person theory–the idea that if a person has the correct personality traits, his instincts will lead to the correct actions regardless of the details of a given situation. However, research shows that no character trait–not courage, charisma or self-confidence–correlates well with effective leadership as defined by historians. For example, Dean Simonton studied 100 personal attributes of all US Presidents, including their personality traits, and found that only one variable–intelligence–correlated with presidential effectiveness as measured by historians.

But Bush’s team knows how to exploit the Great Person myth. Bush’s deliberately constructed image as a moral leader who knows what is right for America takes the place of rational analysis, and his insistence that we are in an ongoing state of crisis in our war against terror helps to perpetuate this dynamic. Bush and his supporters often silence opposition and dissent by encoding in their arguments a worldview that implies that even to challenge Bush’s ideas is immoral and damaging to the social order, and even to the survival of the nation and of Western civilization. Linguists call this device the lost performative. The speaker purposely leaves out the authority behind far-reaching statements in order to pass off controversial viewpoints as the absolute truth. When Bush says “Our cause is just,” he purposely leaves out the “according to whom?” Saying “I think the war is just” or “Donald Rumsfeld thinks the war is just” is much different from asserting “Our cause is just.” The underlying message from the authoritarian leader is, Do exactly as I say, or catastrophe follows. Overgeneralization and false generalization are powerful vehicles for such a leader.

Joan Didion captured this well in her book Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11. She writes: “We had seen the general acquiescence in whatever was presented as imperative by the administration. We had seen the persistent suggestions that anyone who expressed reservations about detentions, say, or military tribunals, was at some level ‘against’ America. (As in the presidential formulation ‘you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.’) We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war.” As Didion suggests, absolutist language overloads people with information and leaves them confused and unable to judge for themselves. They crave simplicity and fall back on the character myth.

Past US Presidents of both parties have consistently chosen to evoke collective principles despite commanding overwhelming and dominant military power, carefully avoiding provocative imagery or dominating attitudes. Presidents typically reach for the language of consensus and empowerment in important speeches and addresses, focusing on the word “we” and presenting themselves as leaders of a strong community, whether domestically or internationally, with shared strengths, abilities and responsibilities.

John F. Kennedy, in his commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, just after the Cuban missile crisis, declared, “Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament–and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude–as individuals and as a nation–for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward–by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.”

Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1981, echoes these collective aims and affirmations of Americans’ strength: “And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom. To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment.”

George W. Bush’s father, in addressing the United Nations on October 1, 1990, before going into war in the Persian Gulf, placed a notable emphasis on consensus: “We have a vision of a new partnership of nations that transcends the cold war: a partnership based on consultation, cooperation and collective action, especially through international and regional organizations; a partnership united by principle and the rule of law and supported by an equitable sharing of both cost and commitment; a partnership whose goals are to increase democracy, increase prosperity, increase the peace and reduce arms…. We stand together, prepared to swim upstream, to march uphill, to tackle the tough challenges as they come not only as the United Nations but as the nations of the world united.”

The current President, however, uses the word “I” far more often than the word “we,” and usually refers only to the United States, or himself and his party, not the entire world community, when he says “we.” This President also tends to undercut his words of inspiration with references to dangers that loom and threaten, hovering vaguely outside our immediate sphere of control. Even as Bush promises action, he fosters a sense of chaos and danger: In his speech to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, he stated, “Above all, our principles and our security are challenged today by outlaw groups and regimes that accept no law of morality and have no limit to their violent ambitions. In the attacks on America a year ago, we saw the destructive intentions of our enemies. This threat hides within many nations, including my own. In cells and camps, terrorists are plotting further destruction, and building new bases for their war against civilization. And our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale.”

Some Americans find a certain comfort in Bush’s thoughts, because they feel that dominance implies moral order and establishes God’s moral authority in the world. They believe there is a natural hierarchy in which those who enjoy dominance have the right to do so. Just as God has dominion over man and man has dominion over animals, the imagery of the moral order assumes a world in which people dominate those who are below them.

While many Americans feel reassured by the appearance of moral dominance, other nations, even friendly ones, do not find the President’s stance reassuring. Non-Westerners tend to view dominance as imperialism. Many nations perceive the President’s authoritarian imagery and mythology and are impelled to find ways to fight against American dominance. Because the world already fears US power, other nations are not comforted by Bush’s leadership style. They feel only repugnance and fear. Left unchallenged, the character myth could potentially win George W. Bush four more years, but it will cost his nation dearly over a far longer period of time–perhaps stiffening resistance to American hegemony enough to end our current run of dominance.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls have begun to attack the character myth with repeated statements that Bush has lied to the American people. But the character myth is more pernicious than just lying. Often being bold, cocky and sure of yourself, and inflexibly and rigidly adhering to your principles because you are convinced you are right, can lead to catastrophic consequences. In Iraq, for example, it led to an absence of planning for any failure of our military to win a complete victory with the acceptance of a grateful Iraq. The Army consequently was unprepared for any nation-building, so that the country is now plunged into chaos and disorder, and in real danger, like Afghanistan, of becoming a permanent home for terrorists.

To be truly effective to the broader public, the Democratic candidates must present their own vivid, descriptive depiction of how they can make America safe, not merely dominant. Just as George H.W. Bush called for a New World Order and Truman had the Marshall Plan, the Democratic candidate should enunciate a new vision of a safe and secure world. He or she should show how a collaborative world is really safer than a dominating one. This is the prescription for success in 2004.

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