On Deserving Better
Commentary by Brad Rourke, Rockville, Maryland
Courtesy of Ethics Newsline®
When I arrived at the Institute for Global Ethics in 1997, it was to lead a project that sought to curb negative, attack-based political campaigning. Over the years, we had some small successes. After I left IGE, I continued toiling in the fields to improve public life, retaining as a part of my portfolio the training of political candidates in the art of running ethical campaigns that did not descend into mud-slinging.
I like to think I’ve had some small effect. That’s the positive spin on the story. But a more objective view can be had by simply looking around, as the U.S. presidential primary campaign heaves into its latter stations. The rhetoric from the top down is getting worse and worse. Indeed, Rush Kidder’s penultimate Newsline commentary (”Look, You Jerk, Negative Campaigning Is Unethical!“) makes this plain. Any improvements appear to have been on the margins, and the general trajectory of political discourse is troubling. But I wonder, sometimes, how much of this reflects the bad behavior of candidates and how much of this is a demonstration of the old saying that a people gets the government it deserves.
These thoughts were on my mind as I sauntered into my local polling place last Tuesday. There were eight poll workers and two voters. The campaigns? Lackluster. The issues? Small and nonexistent. The discourse (such as it was)? By turns harsh and vacuous.
Small wonder that turnout was abysmal. Yet why should this be? In a seemingly unimportant primary with low turnout, my voice as a voter is magnified. I have no real say in who gets to run for president (few do, in reality, notwithstanding the persistent message that every vote counts). But I do have plenty of say when it comes to local issues and candidates. Why are there not people taking advantage of this? Why do we, instead, bemoan “politics” as if it were a dirty word?
“In a primary characterized by what many called unusually low turnout, candidates said they encountered voters at the polls who knew hardly anything about the Board of Education race and who directed their attention instead to the congressional or presidential primary races,” reported a local online news source.
I believe the answer has to do, in part, with a shift in our understanding of our role as citizens. Collectively, we shirk our responsibilities as citizens in favor of viewing ourselves as consumers. The difference is crucial. A citizen has duties that she or he owes. On the other hand, a consumer is owed something.
Too many of us feel we are owed something in public life. We look at political candidates through the lens of whether they agree or disagree on our pet issues. We view compromise as if it were a dirty word. We demonize those who disagree with us. And — worst of all — we make it plain to our elected leaders that we apply these frameworks to them, too. Small wonder that campaigns respond by engaging in scorched-earth tactics and by promising us everything we want.
In years past, I used to think I saw glimmers of hope on the local level. Down in communities, much of politics used to feel insulated from the foolishness going on at the top of the ticket, but lately things have dimmed. The same techniques used in the elite ranks of politics are being used more and more at the lower levels. In my own town, the amount of money spent on campaigns has shot through the roof, driven by the need to send more and more targeted attack mailings. Meanwhile, voter turnout goes down, and those who make it to the polls know less and less.
Many call for an improvement in campaign discourse. I do believe this is needed, but I also believe that what is needed — just as much if not more — is an improvement in our own behavior as citizens. We have duties, as citizens, and they extend beyond voting. In public life, we owe one another respectful engagement, fairness to opposing views, honest statements of our own, responsible action, and compassionate listening.
While some embody these values, many — myself included — fall short all too often. But think for a moment what life in communities might look like if we acted in this way — to the best of our abilities — more often. We might begin to get the kinds of political campaigns we want and deserve.