02 Nov The Voter’s Role in Bringing Principles to Politics
Many people have a go-to phrase they pull out and use whenever the opportunity arises. It might be something constructive like “We need to get our ducks in a row,” or it might be something sarcastic like “He isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree.” A phrase (too) popular today remains “It is what it is.”
A lawyer we knew years ago had a unique pet phrase, which consisted of these five words: “No good deed goes unpunished.” Rich, the lawyer, said this a lot in his law cases.
Rich’s favorite saying comes to mind again on this Election Day, as we think about what prevents more politicians from basing their decisions and actions on principles. Could it be that politicians fear potential consequences of being honest, transparent, and—God forbid!—peace loving?
That is where we, as voters come in; we must make sure we “unpunish” any candidate or elected official who does us the truly good deed of honoring these and other positive principles. If we choose to “punish” at the polls, it should be the candidate who fails to follow principles, not the one who does.
What the Haters Say May be Wrong
Everyone is a critic and everyone has critics, it is said, and to some extent that is true. Especially in politics, the two-party system means that whatever any politician says or does, there is a built-in adversary poised to criticize. The most vociferous of these political critics simply “hate on” every act, characteristic, thought, word, idea, and anything else about the disliked politician. Attention-seeking media commentators get in on the act, which magnifies the condemnation.
Fear of such criticism would not dissuade politicians from following principles, however, if the voting public were to recognize that the criticism should be taken with a grain of salt and ignored when off base. As voters, we must make our own decisions about whether the built-in critics are correct. Maybe we really admire the action, trait, thinking, and words of the one being criticized. What the critic sees as a flaw or failure, perhaps we see as showing solid principles.
To illustrate this idea, let’s look at some examples of how principled actions could be attacked wrongly by political opponents. For each example of politics based on principle, we will describe what the “haters”—those predisposed to dislike everything a particular politician does or does not say or do—will declare. Then, we will explain how the action reflects principles that outweigh any criticism.
Action: Candidate W discloses tax returns
What the haters will say: “W is wealthy and obviously has profited on the backs of others.”
Principles involved: Turning over tax returns honors the principle of transparency, which tells more about the candidate than does income or wealth.
Action: Candidate X admits holding an errant policy position and changes his mind on an issue
What the haters will say: “X is a flip-flopper who goes whichever way the wind is blowing, saying anything to get elected.”
Principles involved: Understanding and honesty; we want politicians who will continually gather new facts and reassess their policies, then admit when they are wrong.
Action: Senator Y evaluates a bill proposed by the adverse party and publicly supports it or offers a fair compromise
What the haters will say: “Y is not loyal to her party and must be defeated in the next primary.”
Principles involved: Bipartisan agreement honors the principles of peace (as opposed to political fighting), service (as opposed to self-serving actions), and integrity.
Action: Representative Z opposes a new federal entitlement program
What the haters will say: “Z does not care about those in need (such as families, small businesses, or whatever popular group would receive the proposed payments), and only cares about protecting the wealthy from paying taxes.”
Principles involved: Actually, although it will cost him votes in the future, Z knows that the principle of limited government does not allow payments to every possible recipient, and that some entitlements programs strip vulnerable recipients of their dignity and can cause dependence on the government, which hurts, rather than protects the recipients in the long run.
If we want principles in politics, the actions above are the kind we need to be sure not to punish when casting our ballots.
How Best to Unpunish Principled Candidates
Beyond the way we cast our votes, we, as voters and citizens, have other ways to support the use of principle as a basis for politics.
First, we can stop watching television programs that seem to take sides in politics by slanting their news in favor of one candidate or another. Similarly, we can cancel subscriptions to media sources that do the same, telling them instead that we want unbiased coverage of the issues rather than exacerbating the divisions in our country.
Another thing voters can do is stand up for candidates who do reflect the right principles in their words, conduct, and decisions. When haters hate, so to speak, we can point out the principles that are being honored by those candidates. For example, when a politician is criticized for admitting a mistake or hesitating while learning the facts, we point out that understanding, honesty, integrity, dignity, and peace are features, not bugs. When the President or a member of Congress takes an unpopular position, we can point out that the federal government cannot be all things to all people.
In politics, Rich was right that there indeed will be punishers of good deeds. It is up to us to be the opposite. We need to do what we can to make sure that good, principled deeds do in fact go unpunished.
Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.
Look for his posts each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.