When your humble blogger was growing up, he often heard his mother poke fun at the unduly self-assured—those who always thought they were “the smartest man in the room”—although that phrase was not invented yet then. She did this kindly and subtly, as only Mom could, by putting these words in the all-knowing one’s mouth: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Then she would get that twinkle in her eye.  

The point not-so-subtly obscured by the sarcasm is to chide someone who reaches a conclusion before assimilating the pertinent facts. At Principle Based Politics, we call this concept “deciding before learning,” and we disapprove. 

Understanding is a fundamental principle. 

We believe our federal leaders should have open minds and listen, read, and learn before making policy decisions.  Understanding must precede “knowing” is another way to put it. Certainly, “understand before saying” is a related rule by which to lead.

Practical Application of the Principle of Understanding

Understanding in politics, however, can be challenging to display in practice. When the candidate is giving a media interview or is in a debate and is asked to opine on a foreign policy issue or a proposed law, it must be particularly tough to admit even partial ignorance and reply, “I’ll need to learn about that issue before I can give you an answer.” When a president is giving a White House press conference, it must be awkward to say, “I really don’t know about that. I will check into it.”

When a senator or representative is asked by a constituent “Do you support the President on __ issue?,” it must be hard to evade with “Let me read up on that.” We all can envision the headlines that would ensue about these answers, which would be billed as gaffes or taken as proof of membership in the old Know Nothing Party.

Nevertheless, we must look for candidates, presidents, senators, and representatives with the humility and patience to wait until they know what they are talking about before talking. Leaders of our executive and legislative branches, as individuals, should employ a process of gathering all potentially relevant facts, reading documents, actually listening (rather than making speeches) in legislative hearings, debating the importance of the various facts to test them, and then voting. They must build strong teams that will help them learn. Briefing papers, advisors, and research are not in short supply in our federal government.

It is better to have an educated and reasoned policy than one that can be tweeted immediately.


Understanding also incorporates the principle of empathy. We should seek out politicians who can understand situations from perspectives other than their own. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Certainly, voters can recognize and criticize when an elected leader lacks empathy, and we should try just as hard to determine in advance whether alleged leaders actually have it.

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.

No Comments

Post A Comment