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The How Still Matters

Many have argued that we should vote on policies not behavior. But no matter how we ultimately vote, we must remember that how we treat each other will always matter.

As a high school sophomore, I attended the speech and debate class at my high school. Ordinarily, the teacher picked issues to debate on which our class would be naturally split.

But, perhaps unexpectedly, when the topic was the death penalty the class overwhelmingly supported capital punishment, leaving only a few students on the opposite side.

So, to even out the numbers, the teacher invited death penalty supporters to take the opposite position and join the opponents for the purpose of our debate. I and one other student chose to do so.

Over the next week, I studied the best arguments in opposition to the death penalty. I identified the weakest points in my own belief systems too.

At the end of the week when we held the actual debate, I made a statement in opposition to the death penalty. A student from the other side made a counterpoint that I knew was based on weak evidence, but which she didn’t disclose, and I felt angry. 

Interestingly enough, I was having the same emotional response that I have when I debate issues that I’m passionate about—but this time, for an issue on which I currently held the opposite view.

Today there are fewer conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans than in generations

Over the years this experience proved formative, to the point where today I strongly oppose the death penalty. I learned for myself how powerful an effect arguing passionately for a position has in changing how I felt and how I believed.

This experience has made me concerned about a now prevalent argument regarding our presidential election. My concern is not that the argument is wrong, but rather the effect that making the argument will have on its adherents.

Policy Not Personality

One of the most important political trends of the last twenty years has been the increasing ideological division of the political parties. Today there are fewer conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans than in generations. 

So, for supporters of President Trump, it must be incredibly frustrating to see the numbers of conservatives who have both chosen to not support the President and have adopted a stance of permanent opposition to him. It must be doubly frustrating that of the few conservative voices featured in legacy media outlets, these “Never Trumpers” are so over-represented

In trying to persuade their ideological cohort, “policy not personality” has become a recurring feature of our election season discourse, as illustrated by arguments like these:

A message to my conservative-leaning friends.

The Choice:

  1. “I can’t stand Trump’s tweets” so I’m going to vote for Open Borders.”
  2. “Trump is obnoxious” so I’ll vote for a million abortions a year funded by me and you.
  3. “Trump has a checkered past” so I’ll vote for Socialism, the Green New Deal, and the destruction of a free-market economy.

This argument was recently put forth eloquently, factually, and in much greater detail by Carl Herstein in Public Square Magazine.

Again as a matter of pragmatic election behavior, many versions of this argument are legitimate, and those who are choosing to vote based on this kind of prioritizing of various goods are engaged in the same kind of difficult decision-making that all voters are. 

But as illustrated above, this argument can easily devolve into something less about choosing to make difficult prioritizations, into more-strident, less-nuanced arguments.

Something like: “Interpersonal behavior does not matter. Only political policies matter.”

When this argument gets made often and with great passion in the haste to win over voters, it seems likely to have the same effect as arguing against capital punishment had on me.

Our Leaders Affect How We Behave

To help pay my way through college, I took on a job as a basketball referee for intramural basketball on my campus. The head ref was well-respected for his technical accuracy and knowledge of the rules.

He was also impatient, terse, and arrogant. And while these are certainly not commendable traits, they are very helpful to referees who have little time for argument and whose every decision is condemned by half of the people around.

There were five new referees during the season I started. During our training, we got along as a new cohort easily. But only a few months later when we refereed together, I observed that we had become accustomed to being unkind with each other. We treated one another the exact same way our boss treated us.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had a job with a boss before. Employees consistently rank manager behavior as the number one reason for leaving a job, no doubt partly due to the influence a negative supervisor can have on any of us.

Humble, hardworking leaders inspire their employees to do the same, while fault-finding, responsibility-avoiding bosses almost inevitably lead those that work with them to adopt similar traits. 

And our leaders can sometimes impact us in unexpected ways. Recently the names Ivanka and Melania have increased in popularity—a pattern that follows most first ladies.   

One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon comes from the presidency of Bill Clinton. He engaged in a specific, widely-publicized sex act, and prompted a debate about whether or not it constituted sex. In the years following this scandal, oral sex skyrocketed among teenagers who insisted that it “didn’t count.”

Today our attention is turned more toward our national political leaders than ever before. So we should expect that the behavior of our national political leaders will have greater influence than ever before. 

Our Coarsening Dialogue

Hands up everyone who would have guessed in 2012 that within eight years a six-time senator on a nationally televised debate would call his opponent a clown and tell him to shut up.

Not only that, he would be widely considered the winner of that debate. Not only that, this moment would be spoken of as a highlight of the debate.

And he would be widely considered to have behaved with more decorum than his opponent.


The American people have noticed the disintegration of our public discourse. In a 2019 survey, Pew found that 85% of Americans said that our public discourse had become less respectful, and in a separate question 85% of Americans said that our public discourse had become more negative. Only 2% and 3% respectfully said it was improving.

Since even his supporters acknowledge the coarseness of the President’s tone, the fact that American discourse as a whole has followed the same path during his presidency shouldn’t come as a surprise.

How we talk to each other matters, in both personal and public ways

Yet this is precisely the point on which many believers have become quick to minimize and discount any serious consequences. On this question, widely-respected evangelical leader Jon Piper made a stir recently when he warned, “it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person”—going on to warn that “flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness” can be “nation-corrupting” as “they move out from centers of influence to infect whole cultures. The last five years bear vivid witness to this infection at almost every level of society.”

Bottom line:  How we talk to each other matters, in both personal and public ways. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the upcoming election is causing them stress (including three-quarters of Democrats, but also two-thirds of Republicans). That’s real stress, in their real life.

Recent years have also seen measurable decreases in the amount of trust Americans are giving each other and the institutions of a functioning society around us—all of which is, no doubt, also connected to the mounting suspicion on both sides. Far more than a personal issue, this starts to influence how (and whether) we can work together across our differences.  

Speaking of these “quintessentially American institutions” like Congress, courts, FBI, and the academy itself, national dialogue leader Liz Joyner told us in a recent interview that each represents a site not only for checks and balances but also “ongoing disagreement that yields wisdom and truth”—at least when these systems are “working correctly.” From the peer review process to the legal system, the “whole process is set up to help us identify blind spots—and hone in on what is real and true.” Although these institutions are full of imperfect human beings, they help us do the right thing.  

After cautioning about how the ideals that protect these systems are “under constant assault,” Liz concluded, “I think that the institutions that have preserved that over 250 years are extremely critical.  Without them, the danger that exists for all of us is immeasurable.  If they’re gone, God help us.”

Thus, real distrust and suspicion also impact our public life in significant ways.  None of which is to even address the moral dimension of all this.

We should take Pauls’s injunction to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful,” as seriously as any other moral imperative. And while we may not ultimately prioritize it in our vote, excusing it, or choosing to not prioritize it in our lives will ultimately degrade us and those around us.

None of us hopes to support a candidate that does not live up to our ideals, yet ultimately every voter in every election chooses which compromises they will make. But we must be careful that just because we can’t have our ideal candidate, we find ourselves rationalizing why our deeper ideals somehow don’t matter as much in the end. In short, if you have chosen to argue that the way your candidate treats others doesn’t matter to your vote, please don’t confuse this to mean that the way we treat others or the way we talk doesn’t matter. It always will.


None of this should suggest a specific answer to the question of policy v. personality. Voters can legitimately choose to prioritize policy, and voters can legitimately choose to prioritize personality, or voters can choose to reject this dichotomy and vote on an entirely different premise.

But no matter who you choose to vote for, behavior does matter, how we speak to each other does matter. And for the good of the country, we should call on whichever candidate wins to reject the divisive rhetoric of the campaign and embrace a higher standard.


About the author

C.D. Cunningham

C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University Extension. He serves on the board of the Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association.
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