This is the first in what may become a series of posts about ethics and politics.
No one has ever handed me a bag of cash in an airport parking lot in exchange for taking a political action that I thought was unethical or illegal. I’m sure it happens, it has just never happened to me. And as far as I know, it has never happened to any of my friends. Instead, we take on a client project we may not think is great but probably isn’t bad because we need the income, and besides if we don’t do it someone else will. We work for elected officials with whom we may have serious disagreements because we support most of their views, and if you want to work for a congressman with whom you always agree you should run for congress. You support a political party or leader whose individual actions may violate your views because of the larger good being done, and to avoid all of the bad the other side would bring. We can usually come up with good reasons to keep doing what we’re doing, or for what we have already done, if it’s not too egregious and pays the bills.
One way to avoid being ethically boiled like a lobster in a pot is to pay attention to ethical questions intentionally, early, and often. Before entering a political situation (working for a client, candidate, or congressman) ask where the bright lines are that you will not cross. Decide how you will discuss politics and issues before entering a debate.
In that spirit, I offer the following question: What political ethical responsibilities, if any, do you and I have and to whom or what do we have them? I am not asking casually or rhetorically, and this post does not suggest an answer. Rather it is an invitation to a discussion in which I hope you will participate.
Aristotle said that “all men attempt in some manner both to conduct investigations and to furnish explanations, both to defend and to prosecute.” For Aristotle, everyone has a responsibility to be good as they can be at it, with good defined as proficient and ethical. Richard Weaver wrote that language is sermonic, that all men are preachers because they necessarily express a view of the world, and as such have ethical responsibility when they speak (50 years ago he also complained that rhetoric was being taught by “part time teachers…faculty wives, and various fringe people”). If Aristotle, Weaver, and countless others are right what is our responsibility? And to whom or what are we responsible?
The question of ethics in politics can be easy to answer in the abstract. We usually raise ethics when people we think of as the bad guys – politicians, lobbyists, consultants, etc. – do things we think of as bad. Implied in the question is that whomever we’re talking about is probably unethical to begin with and whatever they’re doing is therefore unethical. They should therefore see the light (a light we happen to be holding) and do the right thing (a thing with which we happen to agree).
But if you poke the question it gets more complicated. For example, to whom or what do people have an ethical responsibility when it comes to politics? Is it to the American people? If so, which ones? To a democratic ideal? If so whose vision of it? Is it to whomever one works for? What if that person is unethical? Is the ethical standard higher if the employer is a congressman than if the employer sells paint? What are our ethical responsibilities (if any) as citizens?
Leaving “to what or whom” aside for now, I want to focus on the first half of the question: What political ethical responsibilities do I have? This makes the question more concrete, to say nothing of a bit more personal.
Do I have unique, special, or different political ethical responsibilities because I make my living in politics, teach political communication, spend some of my free time and my money on politics, and am a political talking head from time to time? Are the ethical standards for me higher than for others because I may be seen as an expert in politics?
One could agree with Aristotle and Weaver and say the answer is “of course not.” That I happen to pay my mortgage with politics doesn’t mean I get to play by different rules, and that I express opinions doesn’t mean that anyone listens to them or takes them seriously.
On the other hand, my opinions may carry greater weight, especially if I am influencing others because of my experience, or directly deciding or helping decide policy or political action. What I think and say may not “matter” more than what others think or say in the abstract, but it can impact people’s lives in ways that the views of my friends in other fields cannot. Does that raise the ethical bar?
I volunteered on my first campaign I was 11. Over the past four decades I have helped elect (and failed to help elect) mayors, city councilmembers, state legislators, governors, representatives, senators, and presidents. I have lobbied and done strategic political communication for clients in the private sector, for trade associations, for non-profits, and for advocacy groups. I have served in senior positions in the House and Senate, and most recently was an Obama-appointee. Do any of those roles come with added ethical responsibilities? Are the responsibilities different if I was paid or if I was volunteering?
Is the bar higher still if I teach others who go into politics because what I say may be internalized by (presumably) impressionable students who then do what I say? I have taught politics and communication at several colleges and universities, and guest lectured at many more. My former students have gone on to senior positions for Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, in the Obama administration, at advocacy groups and consulting firms, and in media outlets covering politics. Does that mean I have an added ethical responsibility?
The odds are very good that you fit one or more of these categories – voter, activist, online opinionator, teacher, or political professional. You may be an elected official or journalist. You may also have an additional, critical, political role as a parent. What are your political ethical responsibilities?
I look forward to your answers and our ongoing discussion.