Why America needs the virtues of humility

Christopher Beem, Pennsylvania State University

In a recent speech full of allusions to Bible verses and Christian hymns at the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Hillary Clinton focused on Christian humility. She acknowledged that

“Humility is not something you hear much about in politics.”

But, she said, it should be. Those who truly understand “the awesomeness of power and the frailty of human action” – that is, those who manifest humility – are “our greatest leaders.”

Of course, this speech was smart campaigning. It reminded voters of what she sees as a competitive advantage with her opponent. It was also good Baptist theology.

But, humility is not merely a Christian virtue. Humility is an essential aspect of every major religion. For that matter, humility is more than just a religious virtue. In my research, I have argued that humility is also an essential democratic virtue.

So, why is humility so essential in a democracy?

Humility, religion and politics

Like most Christians, Baptists believe that all people are sinners, that all of us are condemned by God’s righteous judgment and that there is nothing that we ourselves can do to alter that condition. If we are saved, it is because of God’s actions, not ours. Humility is the only appropriate response to these tenets of faith.

What’s more, Jesus himself washed the feet of his disciples and humbled himself “even unto death.” So, devout Christians are called to do no less.

Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Sculpture beside the Prayer Tower, Pittsburg, Texas.
J. Stephen Conn, CC BY-NC

However, politics and humility just don’t go together. Politics requires ego; you need to present yourself as a better alternative than your opponent. Humility means that you aware of your own failures, and are respectful of those with whom you disagree. Seen in this light, many believe that in our society, humility has become “counter cultural” and that politics is a leading cause.

A 2016 survey, for example, showed that over 70 percent of Americans believe that incivility has reached crisis levels and 64 percent believe that politicians are to blame. The survey describes incivility as “insulting comments” and “personal attacks.” These sorts of behavior do not go together with any understanding of humility. If you are humble, you present your opinions and beliefs with more modesty and less belligerence.

Take for example some of the comments from the presidential candidates. Donald Trump, to be sure, has said that he has “much more humility than a lot of people would think.” But his claims that he has “a very good brain,” that he has the “best words,” that he knows “more than the generals” and ceaseless reminders that he is “a winner” all reinforce the idea that humility is, to say the least, not something that comes naturally to him.

Clinton, drawing a contrast with her opponent’s campaign, called half of Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” for which she later expressed regret. Nonetheless, the comment reinforced the opinion of many that she is arrogant. Writing in The Hill, Jewish rabbi Shmuley Boteach argued that,

“If defaming millions of American citizens she has never met as ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic’ is not arrogant then the word has no meaning.”

Humility enables leaders

Clinton is correct to argue that throughout our nation’s history, those who manifested humility were among our best leaders – and that goes for politics and religion.

Upon accepting command of the Continental Army, George Washington said:

“I…declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”

In his second inaugural, hard on the heels of a long and bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln concluded:

“With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Martin Luther King Jr.‘s memorial, Washington, D.C.
Scott Ableman, CC BY-NC-ND

In his letter from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. closes with acknowledgment of his limited perspective:

“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth or indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.”

Bias and humility

Humility is a virtue that has enabled our best leaders to improve our democracy, and it is good for the rest of us, too. It would help, in other words, if humility were not thought of as merely a Christian or religious virtue.

Far better to see humility as a prudential response to the knowledge of how we human beings really operate. Scientific evidence is overwhelming that all of us are hopelessly and inescapably biased.

When we hear information that runs against our beliefs and values, we find reasons to discount or reject that information. This operation happens before we are even consciously aware of it. And what is more, the part of our brain that begins this process (our amygdala) is not accessible by our conscious brain.

Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen tested this hypothesis in a group of people likely to think that their side offered a better vision for the future. He presented Republican and Democratic students who had strong opinions about welfare reform with two proposals: one very conservative and one very liberal.

These students also had fairly strong partisan attachments. That is, they were strong Democrats and Republicans. Cohen found that this partisan identity overwhelmed their assessment of the two proposals. Even when he called the conservative proposal “Democratic” and the liberal one “Republican,” the students still followed their party’s beliefs.

In fact, once the label was attached, the impact of the proposal’s objective content “was reduced to nil.” For these students, their bias in favor of their party was more important than the facts about what they were ostensibly assessing.

Why humility matters

With effort, we can learn to mitigate the effects of our biased brain. For example, even when we are most convinced of our own righteousness, we can push ourselves to try to consider alternatives, or even to make the argument for the other side.

But we will never be able to fully control these effects, let alone turn them off.

In fact, the scientific account of bias is not at all far from the Christian concept of sin. We all have it (it is universal), we can’t not do it (it is inescapable) and it causes us to fail to live up to being the kinds of people we want to be.

For democratic citizens, this information ought to matter.

Knowing that biases are universal and inescapable ought to make all of us present our opinions with more humility. It ought to make us more circumspect regarding what we believe and more open to the possibility that we might be wrong, and to the near certainty that we are not seeing the whole picture.

Just so, it ought to make us see our opponents as fellow “sinners,” deserving, no less than ourselves, tolerance and generosity. This would make our society a better place, of course, but it would also make our democracy operate better.

If we enter into the rough and tumble of politics knowing that none of us has a hammerlock on the truth, we might be more likely to find it.

The Conversation

Christopher Beem, Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five key debate moments that altered the course of a presidential race

Robert Speel | Pennsylvania State University


Every presidential election year in my American Political Campaigns and Elections course, I get an opportunity to spend a full lecture discussing with students some of the famous moments from historic presidential debates.

Robert Speel

Robert Speel

I explain to students that while the presidential candidate debates are supposed to be about presenting policy alternatives to undecided voters, almost no one pays any attention or remembers what the candidates say about policy.

Instead the media covers the debates and voters interpret the debates in a winner and loser format. Which candidate connected to voters the best? Who had the best zinger or inspirational line?

Some famous moments in debate history have reinforced the public’s negative perceptions of candidates, while other key moments have helped dispel such notions.

Here are five from past presidential debates, chosen for their impact on the election campaign and outcome.

1960: Kennedy-Nixon

In 1960, Richard Nixon had served as the Republican vice president for eight years after six years in Congress. Senator John Kennedy had served in Congress for 14 years, but was only 43 years old with a youthful appearance and image. Using the still relatively new medium of television, Kennedy and Nixon agreed to the first general election presidential candidate debates in American history, four in total. (The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were for a U.S. Senate seat; they did not debate in the 1860 presidential election.)

Kennedy’s goal during the debates was to ease voters’ fears that he was too young and inexperienced to serve as president. Nixon, on the other hand, repeatedly emphasized his own foreign affairs experience in campaign advertising.

While Kennedy appeared comfortable and confident in front of television cameras, Nixon famously declined to wear makeup, ended up sweating under the camera lights, and sometimes shifted his eyes, unsure where to look. While the legend that Kennedy won the debate among television viewers and Nixon won the debate among radio listeners may be a myth, the debate did dispel the image that Kennedy was somehow less prepared than Nixon to be president.

Richard Nixon wipes his face during the first televised presidential debate.

1980: Carter-Reagan

Democratic President Jimmy Carter had presided over foreign policy crises in 1979 – including the taking of hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran – and persistent economic problems during his presidency. Some voters perceived him as ineffective. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, was calling for a nuclear buildup during the Cold War and had a history of criticizing entitlement programs. Some also thought he was too old to lead the nation. (At age 69, Reagan would become the oldest man ever elected president.)

The debates were delayed due to disagreement over whether John Anderson, an independent candidate whose polling numbers had dropped from over 20 percent to under 10 percent in the weeks before the election, should be allowed to participate. Carter and Reagan finally agreed to one debate a week before the election.

At the debate, Carter tried to reinforce Reagan’s image as a war hawk willing to start nuclear wars. In a key moment, Carter said that he had discussed politics with his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, to ask her what was the biggest issue in the election, and she answered “nuclear weaponry.”

But Reagan came away with the most memorable moment. After Carter mentioned Reagan’s past opposition to Medicare, Reagan tilted his head, smiled and said, “There you go again” to audience laughter – perhaps an attempt to dispel Carter’s attempts to make Reagan look dangerous.

In his closing statement, Reagan then spoke to voters through the cameras and asked “Are you better off than you were four years ago?,” alluding to the state of the economy. Polls in the last week indicated a major surge in support for Reagan.

‘There you go again.’

1984: Reagan-Mondale

Before the 1984 election, Reagan was 73 years old, already the oldest president in American history. Age was a potential issue for voters. During the first debate with Walter Mondale, the 56-year-old former vice president and former two-term U.S. senator, Reagan occasionally lost focus and seemed confused. After that first debate, Reagan’s large lead over Mondale in polls began to narrow.

During the second debate, a moderator asked Reagan whether his age should be an issue in the campaign. Reagan answered, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience laughed – Mondale included – and the media eagerly replayed and reprinted the joke. Reagan won in November in a landslide.

During a 1984 campaign debate, Reagan turned the issue of age on its head.

1992: Bush-Clinton-Perot

The 1992 presidential election involved the only three-candidate general election debates in American history. Incumbent George H.W. Bush needed to overcome an image that he was somewhat out of touch with recent problems in the American economy, an image partly shaped by media reports that Bush had seemed amazed at the technology of supermarket bar code scanners, which had been around since 1976.

In contrast, Clinton had famously told an upset voter earlier in the year that “I feel your pain.” Ross Perot, a Texas multibillionaire, was not a Bush fan and was running a populist and centrist campaign focused on balanced budgets and opposition to trade agreements.

The second of three presidential debates that year was held in a town meeting format. During the debate, Bush was seen on camera checking his wristwatch twice, giving viewers the impression that he would rather be somewhere else. And when an audience member asked a question that made no sense, mixing up the national debt and economic recession, Bush told the audience member that he didn’t understand her question, while Clinton walked over to her and invited her to tell him more about her economic problems.

This debate reinforced voter images of the candidates: Bush seemed less interested in the problems of average people, while Clinton expressed compassion toward voters.

Clinton expresses compassion.

2012: Obama-Romney

At the first debate of 2012, Obama did not appear as energetic as usual and didn’t give any of the snappy answers that viewers expect and that tend to dominate media attention after debates. Following the debate, polls indicated that Romney had taken a small lead over Obama.

But at the second debate, when Romney asserted inaccurately that Obama had not referred to the attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya as an “act of terror” for two weeks, moderator Candy Crowley interjected to correct Romney’s mistake. Obama chimed in “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” as Obama supporters at home reacted in delight at Romney’s embarrassment. Romney compounded his unfortunate choices of words at the debate by noting that as governor, he had received “whole binders full of women” to consider for positions in state government.

The awkward comment became an instant joke, with dozens of internet memes circulating in the days after the debate.

Obama gets an assist from Candy Crowley.

Looking ahead

While we don’t yet know which comments or events at this year’s debates may affect the outcome of the election or remain memorable, we can expect that candidates will do their best to dispel negative images of themselves – while reinforcing negative images of their opponents.

Watch for Hillary Clinton to focus on insulting comments that Donald Trump has made about people or groups and to focus on some of Trump’s past business practices: Trump University, the Trump Foundation and his casino businesses. She will also likely try to expose some of Trump’s populist claims – like Mexico paying for a wall on the border – as devoid of substance. At the same time, she will try to reinforce her own image as an experienced political leader.

And watch for Trump to focus on past errors made by Clinton, like her foreign policy judgment, her use of a private email server and meetings with donors to the Clinton Foundation. Trump may also attempt to dispel his image as being inexperienced in world affairs by appearing calm and confident in his assertions, while pointing to past mistakes American leaders have made. He may also try to focus on some substantive and moderate policy proposals to distinguish himself from the bellicose firebrand he appears to be on the stump.

The campaign staffs of both candidates have likely been rehearsing some zingers that could be used in the first debate. But candidates need to be careful about making them sound spontaneous. If they sound rehearsed, they’ll reinforce one of the worst qualities people can think of a candidate: that they’re fake.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Democracy and Donuts: Trump and Manhood


From the Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy “Democracy and Donuts” blog: Managing Director Chris Beem argues that Trump’s appeal to white males is driven by their reaction to a society that has betrayed them. This is not just economic; it goes to their understanding of themselves as men. He looks at Susan Faludi’s book, Stiffed, to sketch out this feeling of betrayal, and to the films of John Wayne to describe a notion of manhood that Trump wants to reclaim. Here are two excerpts:

Christopher Beem

Christopher Beem

“Donald Trump has put forward a narrative of a country in decline–of immigrants rampaging over our borders, nations laughing at our newfound fecklessness, and an economy riven by corruption and sweetheart deals. Trump has risen to a virtual tie in election polls, so this vision obviously  resonates with many Americans.  But for white men without college degrees, it is especially attractive. He gives voice to their feelings of loss and betrayal. As well, he gives them an explanation for their decline and the hope of some kind of restoration. And by offering all this, Trump also promises them a chance to recapture their manhood.”

Trump and John Wayne

“To understand the vision of masculinity that Trump plans to restore, one has to go back to the epitome of that vision, as represented in films of John Wayne.

“On January 19th, days before the Iowa Caucus, John Wayne’s daughter Aissa endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  In accepting the endorsement, Trump said this: ‘When you think about it John Wayne represented strength, he represented power, he represented what the people are looking [for] today because we have exactly the opposite of John Wayne right now in this country. And he represented real strength and an inner strength that you don’t see very often, and that’s why this endorsement it meant so much to me.’

“Trump has thus signed on to a vision of John Wayne’s America–a time when America possessed this strength and swagger and was therefore more productive, more inventive, and more powerful. In a word, great. This vision also presents a lost ideal of American manhood—an ideal that Wayne himself defined: ‘I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.’ When Trump talks about making America great, this ideal defines not only what he wants to restore for our nation, but who he himself claims to be.”

Read more on the Democracy and Donuts blog.

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