The liberal case for character

A girl holds a U.S. flag next to a sculpture after a naturalization ceremony at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York July 22, 2014. Seventy-five people from 42 countries became American citizens at an event held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Museum.

Questions of character have moved front and center in U.S. politics. The 2016 presidential election quickly became a referendum on the character of the respective candidates rather than a contest of ideas. Questions about the temperament of Donald Trump and the honesty of Hillary Clinton dominated coverage. Since President Trump took office, concerns about his capacities for self-regulation, reflection, and empathy have been frequently expressed.

But concerns about character should not be restricted to our political leaders: the character of citizens matters, too. And though typically the rhetorical domain of political conservatives, strengthening character should be a priority for liberals, too.

In “The liberal case for character in a populist age,” Brookings Senior Fellow Richard Reeves and Research Assistant Dimitrios Halikias argue that liberals shouldn’t shy away from questions of character formation due to fears that a focus on character appears to blame the disadvantaged for their disadvantage while dictating too paternalistic a vision of the good. Rather, a distinctively liberal commitment to cultivating autonomous character, they argue, is vital for social opportunity and for a free society more broadly.

Appealing to a growing body of empirical research on “non-cognitive skills,” the authors show how gaps in the development of character skills lead to gaps in important life outcomes. Such qualities as grit, self-control, and delayed gratification are powerful predictors of life chances and are increasingly rewarded in today’s labor market.

A challenge for liberals’ autonomous conception of character is that character is almost invariably formed within strong social institutions, such as the family or church. The conservative critique that liberalism draws on resources created by pre-liberal social institutions is one that must be taken seriously. This is one reason, for example, why family stability is so important. A stable, loving, committed family helps cultivate their children’s character, which in term allows their children to lead self-propelled lives.

To learn more, read the full paper here.