For American Voters, Choosing a President is All About Character

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump (top) speaks at a campaign event, in Washington, DC, U.S. on October 26 2016 and Hillary Clinton listens during their town hall debate in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. Many American voters feel neither candidate exhibits true presidential character. Carlo Allegri/Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

" I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man. "—George Washington

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, there is something that is not particularly well-understood outside of the United States. Europeans struggle to wrap their heads around what, exactly, Americans admire most in the individual selected to serve in our highest national office.

Here in Britain, highly-regarded prime ministers can often be described as statesmen and women: Strong, capable, experienced leaders who know their policies, articulate, defend, and debate their positions, and rise to the highest ranks of government. The party leadership system reinforces this: Prime ministers do not get elected owing to the pull of their personalities alone. Their party is elected on its policy platform, and of course as head of that party the qualifying prime minister will chart a course for these policies to take shape.

And so whether I'm discussing politics with a British political pundit on a national news program or with a taxi driver who is willing to engage in political discourse with a chatty American, I am finding myself regularly explaining why it is that so many Americans are struggling to get behind the candidate they are voting for on November 8.

That's because, in classic American style, the U.S. is not built on a series of policies. We are built on imagination and ideas. And so it naturally follows that our president really isn't about the policies he or she will bring to the Oval Office. This makes perfect sense to the American voting public. Indeed, in the collection of American presidential greats, our favorite icons—the ones that hold a special place in American hearts and minds—are those who capture our imaginations.

First, of course, there is the ideal of presidential integrity: George Washington, the great hero and gentleman who placed securing a nation's future above personal ego. Or Abraham Lincoln, "Honest Abe." Humble and approachable, Lincoln believed in ushering in a new era of fairness and equality.

And then there is that intangible pull towards to the president who makes the whole business of running the country look charmingly, winningly, seductively easy. John F. Kennedy and his family smiling and laughing in the sunshine, the wind at their backs. Ronald Reagan riding horses with the Queen, telling jokes with the cinematic ease that comes with Hollywood training. Barack Obama, ready-made for sharable video as he shoots the breeze with schoolchildren or the hoops with basketball stars.

To the American public, policies are hashed out somewhere in the sidelines of the Oval Office. Even Josiah Bartlet, that memorable president from iconic television show The West Wing , is less well-remembered for the policies he set than for the way he treated his constituents; the loyalty he instilled in his staff; the ease with which he breezed in and out of the Oval Office from entering wearing a suit-and-tie to leaving in well-worn sweatshirts supporting his local team.

And so, the greatest problem of this year's presidential election for the average American voter is that neither candidate seamlessly suits our national imagination. For voters who sometimes advocate for a Democrat, and sometimes cheer on a Republican depending on the election year, 2016 feels like a casting call for a character role where at the end of the audition, the producers will want to distribute the advert wider and broader, because no one turned up who fits the character they had in mind.

To truly understand the U.S. presidential race, you must enter the realm of the imagination—because this is how America ticks. We like heroes and happily-ever-after. We like the integrity of the lone individual who does the right thing despite the odds. We like that easy-breezy confidence that comes with knowing that if you have a good idea and a work ethic to match it, America will have your back. We like values that cannot necessarily be measured or quantified. For mainstream America, these values are stronger than the policies that either the Democratic or Republican nominees represent.

Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? One attempts to galvanize Americans with "Make America Great Again," but lacks the moral integrity to care. The other represents the political machinations that Americans fear from a Washington stalwart. A significant cross-section of American voters will vote for the candidate they feel least violates their values-based expectations of presidential office. As always, middle-of-the-road America profoundly recognizes that policy matters, but in the end it votes based on character.

This year, that decision is exceptionally hard. We fantasize voting for the man or woman we want to be there when the music's turned up, the lights are on, and the world is watching. We long to vote for the man or woman we want to be there when no one is looking, the lights are dim, and the faint strains of "America the Beautiful" are less than audible. We place policymaking second to character, class, and can-do, because that's the president who reminds us that there's no other country we would rather call home.

Elizabeth Linder is founder and CEO of The Conversational Century, a London-based advisory movement. A native Californian, she was the politics and government specialist for Facebook.