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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Feet of Clay

Is anyone truly surprised when it is revealed that a person of some celebrity, be they a performer, politician, athlete, religious leader or businessperson is not who they seemed? Our penchant for endowing those in the limelight with superior qualities is of course at the root of the inevitable disenchantment that follows when some character flaw, minor or great, is made public. We know of course that we are all human, all possessed of flaws, and prone to error. But there is a perverse sense of shock and let’s be honest, not a little bit of schadenfreude that accompanies most public revelations.

No doubt we are guilty of having set these individuals on their pedestals and we may genuinely feel our trust is violated when they do not behave in a manner that is consistent with the image we have created. It is far worse when supposed leaders say or do something that betrays the confidence of their followers. Political leadership it is said is moral leadership. When politicians violate a closely held moral stance, public confidence and obeisance wane quickly. At least that is the conventional wisdom. A recent article in the journal Political Psychology suggests that isn’t always the case. They write of a growing phenomenon in which followers of some political figures altered their moral stance in order to resolve incongruities between their own views and those of their candidates.

Political scientists have long noted that voters often adjust their ideological views to follow the opinions expressed by their preferred party or candidate, but moral views were considered less malleable; more closely aligned with family, religious and community values. So, it is not without surprise to find that the stability of voters’ moral values is questionable.

The expression feet of clay comes from the book of Daniel. Daniel interprets a dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar “You were looking O king, and lo! There was a great statue. The statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of the statute was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” The meaning is clear, however magnificent its appearance, the statue must eventually crumble because it stands on an untenable mixture; the strength of iron but the brittleness of clay. Daniel prophesies that no matter how powerful and unstoppable a figure may seem they cannot forever endure, but will be undone by their inherent weakness.

What happens, though, when a candidate’s feet of clay are revealed and his or her supporters abandon their moral high ground to explain away behavior that is incongruent with previously expressed views? Such is the case today when we see politicians who have openly violated social or sexual norms held up as pillars of piety, honesty, and morality when just a few years ago they would have been subject to public vilification. If recent research is to be believed, voters, or at least a significant number of them have learned to adjust their expectations and make conditional excuses for what they otherwise would deem unacceptable behavior. What is worse, some religious leaders—those who embrace the legitimacy of authoritarianism in their quest for power and fortune turn a blind eye to behavior that is entirely inconsistent with their professed faith, encouraging voters’ shifting moral stance.

Our world seems at times less a progressive enlightenment than a throwback to darker eras. Our collective sense of right and wrong is shifting and it is unclear where the pendulum will swing next or if it will ever find its center again. Two decades ago, the question of character in leadership was an issue of paramount concern to voters of both parties. Today we might assume it is far less so or rather that character is being defined along ideological lines. Will the feet of clay crumble? Only time will tell.

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