The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University held a program on campaign ethics Friday. The central question posed: Do campaigns have ethical standards?
It is not a question that can be fully answered in a sound bite. So let’s start with the three core issues: lies, inconsistency and money.
Truth is usually ethical but it is not absolute. Most people lie—very few are completely authentic and always tell the truth.
There is such a thing as a good lie. For instance, when Nazis came to people’s doors and asked, “Is a Jewish family living in your attic?” The correct answer would be, “No.” Even if it is a lie, it was an honorable lie.
Then there are public policy lies, such as when former President George H.W. Bush gave war plans to CNN in July 1990. The station then described in detail how the US would attack Iraq on television. All the information was false, but Saddam Hussein positioned his troops accordingly. His regime was surprised when the American advance was nothing like the CNN report. That was a good public policy lie, and it saved lives.
But these are extreme exceptions. In campaigns, lying has become commonplace and it is often done to trick and manipulate voters. In addition, campaigns make little distinction between fact and opinion. The sky is blue is a fact. Whether it is beautiful is an opinion.
In politics, as Daniel Moynihan pointed out, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
But too often facts are based on lies, and opinions are based on those false assertions. Garbage in, garbage out. From climate change and the Affordable Care Act to economics and foreign policy, the American people are given a steady stream of lies that misinform their judgment.
What is needed is a trusted third-party arbiter. That used to be journalism. While there are still very good media folks out there, much of our fourth estate is now under the influence of its own interests. As a result, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a comedy program, has become the most trusted name in news.
Second is inconsistency. Too often partisans provide a double standard for ethical behavior. If a politician crosses the ethical line, there is a tendency for opponents to quickly and forcefully take umbrage at such behavior. Friends are quick to ask for “due process” until overwhelming evidence is provided of the misdeed.
The problem is when different standards apply. For instance, when Republican Sen. Bob Packwood was caught in a sex scandal, many Democrats were quick to ask for his resignation. When President Bill Clinton had his own scandal, these same people were silent. This is a bipartisan problem that is regularly exploited by the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Despite their liberal stance, both have no qualms criticizing Democrats.
The public rewards politicians who stand up for what is right, especially when it is antithetical to their core constituency. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman parlayed his denunciation of President Clinton’s behavior into a Democratic Vice Presidential nomination. Poll numbers for Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie show that he is perceived as someone who is willing to stand up to elements of his own party. And Sen. John McCain was never more popular than when he was considered a “maverick.” (It was McCain’s submissive acquiescence to the right wing of his party that contributed to his poll numbers decreasing, despite his ability to gain his party’s nomination for president.)
Finally, money is the most misunderstood ethical issue politicians face. Money is not the determining factor in big races. If it were, we would have President Mitt Romney and Gov. Meg Whitman. But it does play an essential role in down-ballot races. Unfortunately, the diverse and ever changing rules on contributions, expenditures and reporting can make almost every politician appear unethical at some point in his or her career.
These are just three areas of ethics that create issues for potential public servants. The other issues are too numerous to cover in a single blog.
In the final analysis, and this is a very unpopular view, it is the people of a democracy who are responsible for the ethical systems and conduct of candidates, their campaigns and government. Politics is a participatory sport.
As Plato once surmised, “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.