The politics of virtue: moral issues in the 2016 US Election

“This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful.”[1]

These were the words of US first lady Michelle Obama on the Hillary Clinton campaign trail in New Hampshire last month. The speech, widely lauded as one of the best of the campaign, focused on the conduct of Clinton’s Republican opponent Donald Trump, in particular his behaviour towards women.

As the contest approaches its climax, it doesn’t take much reflection to recognise that this has been quite an unusual campaign. The revelations and scandal surrounding both candidates have enflamed a presidential election to an extent seldom seen and the level of mutual contempt is palpable.

In that same speech, Mrs Obama asked her audience: “…how can we maintain our moral authority in the world? How can we continue to be a beacon of freedom and justice and human dignity?” Indeed, it is surely as a result of Trump’s outlandish behaviour and the controversy surrounding Clinton’s alleged malpractice in government that these questions are at the forefront of the debate. As a result of the moral outrage sparked by allegations of harassment by Trump, much of the commentary in the US has focused on morality and issues of “moral character”. Interventions have come from as far afield as Iran, with its president scathingly suggesting “…there is no morality in that country (USA)”[2].

All this should lead us to ponder the question: what has gone wrong with American politics? Whilst it may be impossible to provide a fully satisfactory answer, two aspects are highlighted here that are particularly interesting from a Jubilee Centre perspective.

Firstly, a consideration of Aristotle’s political philosophy can yield a number of insights into morality and political leadership in relation to the US campaign. Aristotle suggested the principal criteria for political leadership was not wealth – something about which Trump has unashamedly boasted throughout his career – or status and noble birth, or even rule by majority; rather it should be someone “who is pre-eminent in virtue”[3]. By this, Aristotle meant an individual’s disposition to live in accordance with reason, to act in a balanced manner and to do the “right” thing in any given situation.

Putting perhaps the more antiquated elements of this philosophy aside, it must be said that it’s difficult to see the place of reason or virtue in this campaign anywhere. A Machiavellian might argue that Aristotle’s view of leadership is overly normative and unrealistic, describing a system that has never existed. However, it is difficult to see how an injection of virtue into US politics after this campaign would be unwelcome. It may be essential in restoring trust between the electors and the elected.

Secondly, and related, the incredibly personal tone of the public debate has raised a number of questions around personal/professional roles in society and what can be expected of politicians.

It is true that the nature of the American presidential system necessitates a more individualised contest as candidates rather than parties tend to take centre stage. Scholars have written at length on the personalisation of politics in Western democracies, suggesting this stems from the increased media scrutiny of political leaders permitting citizens to “judge them as persons”[4]. However, it must be said that a decent portion of debate in the US still tends to focus on substance and policy, as with the economy and healthcare in both 2008 and 2012.

Particularly after the first two presidential debates of 2016, headlines focused on the “personal attacks” that had dominated both during and after the contests – with Trump repeatedly attacking Clinton and her husband[5].

Ultimately, it seems the campaign epitomises some malign trends seen across Western politics more broadly. If the roles of politicians and public servants come to hold no esteem whatsoever in the public eye, then the consequences for democracy and political representation could be very worrying.

Aristotle may have held a particularly optimistic view of civic life and what political leadership should be; but a revival of virtues such as humility and honesty in political leadership can only be a good thing. Likewise, an emphasis on personal attacks over communities and policies only serves to worsen public perceptions of politics. It is with these things in mind that politicians should perhaps reflect and redouble their efforts to rebuild trust between themselves and the citizens whom they serve, and upon which we might establish healthier democracies.

Joseph Ward, Research Assistant/Impact Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues



[3] Aristotle  (1992), The Politics, 215

[4] Garzia, D. (2011), ‘The personalization of politics in Western democracies: Causes and consequences on leader–follower relationships’, The Leadership Quarterly 22, 698


2 thoughts on “The politics of virtue: moral issues in the 2016 US Election

Add yours

  1. The person who is preeminent in virtue, Aristotle says, ought to be given monarchical power, and in fact can be a “law unto him- or herself”. But he thinks that such individuals are quite rare. And, they typically present some succession problems.

    He does think that virtue ought to have a place in the political system. But he also thinks that the claims to merit a stake in the process made by the rich (the value being wealth) and by the many (the value being freedom) have some legitimacy, and to ignore them in favor of virtue does some injustice.

    I’m happy to see Aristotle bring brought in where he’s needed – we could certainly use a lot more reinterpretation of his thought and application to contemporary politics and society – but it’s equally important to get his views right when they’re being appealed to. . .


  2. Greg,
    Thanks very much for your comment. I agree in retrospect that this post gives quite a narrow account of Aristotle’s conception of political leadership – and I take your point about Aristotle seeing those who are pre-eminent in virtue as ‘permanent kings in their states’. Glad you see the broader argument for inclusion of Aristotle’s political philosophy in contemporary society.


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