Sunday, October 30, 2016

Character assessments change in American politics

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 30 October 2016

A recent Brookings paper, written by William Galston, asks “Has Trump caused white Evangelicals to change their tune on morality?” The article explores recent survey findings that show a dramatic shift in just five years (2011-2016) regarding all Americans but especially white evangelical Protestants’ greater acceptance of politicians’ personal indiscretions.

Agreement to the statement “that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life”, has increased 17 percentage points among all Americans to 61 percent in 2016. Interestingly, at a time of seeming declining importance, private life character is perhaps the primary theme of the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It seems that the candidates are more focused on each other’s character, and even their spouses, than on policy.

The change among white evangelical and white mainline Protestants is largely driving the overall change. It is startling to see a 42 percentage point change among white evangelical Protestants. Five years ago only 30 percent agreed with the above statement; in 2016, 72 percent did. In fact, among the various groups, white evangelical Protestants are now the most “forgiving” of individual indiscretions of immoral acts in their personal lives when just five years earlier they were the least forgiving.

The author of the Brookings article provides little insight into why such a dramatic shift has occurred but the title suggests that it is the specter of Trump, with so many personal and business indiscretions that many voters have adopted an ends justify the means approach to the politicians they decide to support based only on professed ideology. I think this is a superficial argument and fails to take into account significant social changes in the last five years.

Since 2011 at least three issues that relate to personal morality and ones that can and have had disqualifying outcomes for politicians, I contend, account for the change in how a politician’s personal morality is viewed relative to her/his official duties. In no particular order of importance, they are the legalization of same-sex marriage, that at least 14 states have decriminalized marijuana since 2011, and the opioid/prescription pain killer epidemic which has received greater attention since 2011.

Revelations of affairs or of homosexual behavior has ruined a number of politicians on both sides of the political divide. In January 2015, after a string of states legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court ended the debate. For opponents, opposition was based on a moral argument which now no longer has the force of illegality. As a result of the changes in Americans’ views on same-sex marriage, more people have come out, likely to the surprise of many, that offer examples of people who previously may have been viewed as engaging in immoral acts in their private lives but who were and continue to be seen as highly ethical and moral in their public lives.

Since 2011 at least 14 states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana and the possibility of marijuana being as legal and regulated as alcohol is imminent. The change in public attitudes toward the legalization, too, has significantly changed, hence undermining the moral stigma associated with its use, past or present.

Another drug related change is the opioid epidemic with origins in people taking legally prescribed pain medications and becoming dependent on them and the tragedies that have resulted from what is essentially a side effect of the medications. Also, that those who are victims of the epidemic are not members of groups that already carry stigma in our society, such as minorities, poor people, or counter culture types, but instead are largely white working and middle class adults, challenges the simple equation of drug addiction with a lack of moral character or “otherness.”

Sex and drugs have been landmines for American politicians because the American public did not see much of a separation between public and private lives. With so much change in the meaning of and acceptance of gay rights, marijuana, and a humanizing of “addicts” caught in the opioid epidemic, many of the behaviors that constitute immorality have lost its stain. This doesn’t mean that in five years that private “character” won’t count again, but the checklist of character criteria may change. Sex and drugs have served for many years as the hot buttons of private life moral failure. I suspect something else will eventually take their place.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email

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