The Politics of Character


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The Brooking Institution’s Richard Reeves has an incredible article in the most recent volume of National Affairs entitled “The New Politics of Character,” which basically summarizes much of the research associated with Brooking’s Character and Opportunity Project (which I’ve mentioned before). As Reeves explains,

Character, as we will see, is not synonymous with morality. Character combines qualities like drive and prudence that could — but might not — serve moral ends. It’s much more prosaic, but it may be more important.

The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it. Its absence 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 and constitute many of the abiding concerns of policymakers and the everyday issues of American politics. This is perhaps most true of the current debates about inequality and social mobility. Gaps in character development closely correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.

If we want a better, freer, fairer society, we will have to complement the 20th-century focus on strong institutions with a new (if also ancient) concern for strong individuals. The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people.

After exploring a vast amount of research, he concludes,

Any new emphasis on character will need bipartisan support. This will require liberals to get past their squeamishness about words like “character” and conservatives to get over their hostility to public policy. Liberals who are genuinely concerned about rising inequality cannot turn a blind eye to the deep character inequalities that track with class lines. They are understandably afraid of seeming to blame the poor for their plight. But as we work to provide opportunities, we need to ensure people are able to seize them.

Conservatives who are genuinely concerned about opportunity need to look beyond tropes about moral character to the more practicable cause of performance character. As James Q. Wilson urged in The Public Interest’s 20th-anniversary issue: “For most social problems that deeply trouble us, the need is to explore, carefully and experimentally, ways of strengthening the formation of character among the very young.” Step one is to harness education and put character development firmly on the school agenda; step two is to invest in parenting, especially in the very early years. More broadly, the design of policies aimed at alleviating poverty or promoting opportunity ought to be sensitive to their impact on character development.

What is needed is a bipartisan policy push to help cultivate character in the name of opportunity. Given deepening concerns on both sides over barriers to upward mobility, there is an opportunity for a new coalition on character. Let us hope it is seized.

Well worth the read.