Francis Galton was a Victorian scientist with an interest in social Darwinism. It may have been his views on breeding that moved him to attend the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in 1906. The show featured a weight-judging competition: People were asked to guess what a particular ox would weigh after it had been slaughtered and dressed.
Galton published an account of the contest (“Vox Populi”) in the journal Nature. About 800 people took part. The median of all their guesses was 1,207 pounds, just 0.8% off the true weight. This surprised Galton because, as he said, “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues.” The voice of the people was wiser than Galton had been inclined to think.
I’ve been reflecting on the wisdom of crowds since a group of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, intent on disrupting the work of Congress as it certified the Electoral College results. I don’t mean the wisdom of crowds like that one, whose members influence one another like a herd of sheep or cattle — or a lynch mob. I mean large crowds with a diversity of opinions whose members decide independently of one another, like markets, or in this case, like voters.
Consider the 2020 election. Apart from the issue of character, there was much to be said in President Trump’s favor. A strong economy is a good predictor of reelection for an incumbent president. Going into the election, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 40% in Trump’s time, and the Nasdaq composite had more than doubled. Before COVID-19 arrived, unemployment had hit a 50-year low.
But the American people chose Joe Biden by a margin of 7 million votes. President Trump, they rightly judged, was someone who cared almost entirely for himself — that, in addition to the philandering and boorishness they knew about when they first elected him. His character unsuited him for the office.
There has been a tendency for several decades to think that character doesn’t really matter; that what’s important is a politician’s support for issues we care about. Democrats argued this when President Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelities came to light. He was a progressive advocate for women’s rights, they said. Let’s not conduct a moralistic plebiscite over the actions of two consenting adults.
I was upset then about the example President Clinton set for our children, who couldn’t help but hear about his “private” conduct of affairs in the Oval Office. The lesson they learned was that if such a man was fit to serve as president of the United States, maybe his transgressions were no big deal.
Republicans waived the character issue in President Trump’s case in 2016 because he promised to support things they cared about. And he delivered on many of them — support for the unborn, religious freedom, conservative judges, deregulation, economic growth, progress in the Middle East, and new directions with NAFTA and China, to name just a few.
But like Ovid’s Narcissus, he was in love with himself. He sought the affirmation of his base but wrote off the rest of America. He cultivated Twitter followers like a TV audience for his own reality show. He turned on people who had served both him and the country — Vice President Mike Pence, Bill Barr, James Mattis, Jeff Sessions, chiefs of staff, press secretaries — at the first hint of disagreement.
He cared more for himself than his country, and when the election went against him, he could not bear to leave the pool that reflected his own image. The voters were wise to foresee this. Let’s hope the Republican Party renews its commitment to the importance of character when it chooses its next presidential candidate.
John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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