Frank Samson’s 2013 study in Comparative Education Review purported to show that white adults put greater value on so-called “intangibles” in college admissions, after being told that Asian applicants’ test scores were superior to white students’. It is possible that leadership is a real quality and that admitting students based on leadership is reasonable. But it is more likely that we sometimes use “leadership” as a code word to mask racial preferences and a relative lack of qualifications.
Politicians, of course, latch onto these codes all the time. Donald Trump talks about making America strong again, and charges that his opponents are “wimpy” and “low-energy.” In 2009, Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 spokesperson demanded in an email to The Atlantic that the magazine use the word “muscular” to describe one of Clinton’s speeches. Sure, Clinton convinced The Atlantic to unapologetically print propaganda as if it were objective reporting. But perhaps she is most like a student who feels forced to pad a resume to compete on intangibles: Don’t hate the player; hate the game.
A recent poll out of Quinnipiac University reports that two-thirds of Florida Republicans who say they want a “strong leader” support Trump. Meanwhile, a quick Google search for “Obama Strong Leader” turns up Trump’s oft-cited praise of Vladimir Putin for being a stronger leader than Barack Obama. Indeed, Putin is a “stronger leader” than Barack Obama by some metrics. He is more eager to be photographed bare-chested. But I doubt many Americans or even Russians would actually have voted for Putin over Obama in an election. Even if Trump is as healthy and virile as his physician claims, raw stage presence does not a good president make. Trump talks a big game — but politics is about action, not just words.
Presidents should be intelligent and compassionate. They should have a serious policy agenda, or at least a coherent direction for the country. They should be honest and reliable. Perhaps most importantly, they should appreciate dissenting opinions, even within their own cabinets. These are all strengths. A candidate’s ability to shout his or her plans loudly over the protests of other candidates — in English, simplified to the fourth- or sixth-grade level — is not particularly important. But this kind of onstage bullying is exactly what primary debates showcase, and that is where nebulous claims about “strong leaders” originate. We think that a strong personality makes a strong leader, but in fact, personality only has so much to do with it.
To the Republican voters’ credit, they face a brutal choice — there are just no plausible, concrete and winning plans on the right. The tax proposals that have been floated are pure fiction. At best, certain groups can pray that Trump’s true intentions somewhat resemble what he proposes (they can’t be worse than Sen. Marco Rubio’s) and that he picks a good cabinet (actually plausible). But if those are the relevant facts, we should actually start trying to discover them.
It is a little bizarre that outsized attention has been paid to prospective presidents’ water drinking, urination and responses to hecklers. On the other hand, it is equally bizarre that so much coverage of Trump has focused on the language he uses to describe individual women and his popularity with white supremacists. Most developed countries vote for platforms; the United States seems increasingly distracted by personality. Do citizens really think that a candidate’s virility, crudeness, profanity or debating ability are central qualifications to govern? If so, we then we are well-informed and ready to vote. But if not, then we have been focusing on the wrong things this election cycle.
Eliot Levmore is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .