by Richard Kyte, Viterbo University
|This is the second in a series of articles that are part of "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads." This election-year program uses literature as a springboard for civic conversations about political integrity and participatory democracy. The "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads" discussion series consists of four books: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, The Oresteia by Aeschylus (translated by Ted Hughes) and The Children's Story by James Clavell. A slightly longer version of this article previously appeared in The Country Today.
The program is a project of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and its fellow members of the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin. For more information, contact Jessica Becker at 608-263-3155.
It is rare to find people today who are satisfied with the state of politics in our society. Whether we hear complaints about lack of civility among elected officials, behind-the-scenes deal making, partisan posturing or negative campaigning, the most frequently heard remarks about politics are overwhelmingly negative.
And yet nearly everyone is quick to defend democracy as the best form of government. In fact, any visitor just arriving in America during an election year would be quick to observe that we love our form of government, yet we despise our politicians. What is going on here? Is dissatisfaction with the character of politicians an inevitable condition of democracy?
In Joseph Ellis' book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, we look into a distant mirror of our own time. Ellis points out that the people we like to regard as model statesmenfigures like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jeffersonfrequently failed to live up to the standards of character that the historical perspective fondly attributes to them. Of the three, only Washington managed to preserve his integrity by refusing to cast his lot with either political party. And yet, even in Washington's case, the very qualities that enabled him to take such a stance earned criticism from fellow revolutionaries like Thomas Paine, who wrote: "The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any."
One of the chief problems facing politicians in a democracy is that they must take public positions on issues that are not only highly charged and difficult to resolve, but often insoluble. By the very nature of their office, politicians cannot rest with ambiguity on issues that are socially divisive: abortion, gun control, taxes, environmental regulation, stem cell research, foreign trade policies. Private citizens, on the other hand, have the advantage of selecting when and where they will share their views on such issues. I may suspect that my neighbor, coworker or fellow churchgoer does not share my views on some of these issues. But we maintain our cordiality with one another merely by avoiding the difficult issues and limiting our conversations to those topics that are politically neutrallike fishing, the weather or the Green Bay Packers.
Politicians do not have that luxury. Not only do they have to express their views publicly, they have to do so in a practical fashionby passing laws, enforcing policies and rendering judgmentsthat may seriously impact our lives. This situation ensures that most people will have several good reasons to dislike most politicians most of the time. Should it be any surprise, then, that negative campaigning is such a prominent feature of our political landscape? Indeed, running a negative campaign may be the only effective option when the best way to win an election is not to be liked more than the other candidate, but to be disliked less.
Still, there are qualities of character that we value in politicians, and they tend to be the same qualities we value in fellow citizens who attain any sort of leadership role in society. And even though we may not have any examples of politicians who perfectly embody the virtues that we prize, we can look to our history to find instances in which the better qualities of human nature won out over political expediency. Our nation's first three presidents provide good examples of what are perhaps the most important virtues of democratic leaders: integrity, wisdom and hope.
Integrity is difficult to define precisely, though it commonly suggests something like wholeness, strength of character or consistency in word and deed. But however one defines it, most would agree that George Washington was a person of integrity. The defining characteristic of his presidency was his refusal to let personal interests get in the way of national stability. Two things stand out as examples of Washington's integrity. First is his thoroughgoing insistence on independencehis own independence from political parties and the country's independence from foreign nations. The second is his decision not to seek a third term in office, which set the precedent for smooth transfer of political power.
In contrast to Washington, John Adams was a person of fiery emotions. This got him into political difficulty on occasion, but it didn't prevent him from finding a way to exercise prudence in some of his most important decisions. Prudence or wisdom is the ability to recognize the true from the false, to see things as they really are and not just how one wants to see them. It is a quality that is impossible to possess individually, but may be attained through good counsel. Adams knew that his cabinet was narrow-minded and would push him to place the benefit of the Federalist Party before national interests. So he sought out the advice of people he could trust to provide him with a perspective on events that could transcend the narrow interests of party politics.
The third essential political virtue for a democracy is hope. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which he expressed concern that the government might respond too harshly against the participants in Shay's Rebellion. He observed that officials tend to take personal offense when the honesty of their administration of public affairs is challenged "and those characters wherein fear predominates over hope may...conclude too hastily that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government than that of force, a conclusion which is not founded in truth, nor experience." Hope is accompanied by patience; it is an expression of confidence that government does not have to take drastic measures to address every crisisthat human society has an inherent resiliency and goodness that allows it recover from the immediate threat. This formed the basis for Jefferson's attitude that government's proper role is the long-term health of the state, not the drastic response to the whim or cry of the hour.
The politicians we admire from our nation's past are probably more like the politicians of the present age than we would like to admit. The "founding brothers" had more character flaws than our history books record, and today's politicians have more virtues than we read about in the press. From my own limited experience, I can say that the politicians I have had the privilege of knowing have been, on the whole, among the brightest, hardest-working and sincerest people I've ever met. In short, they have been admirable people and worthy of respect, and I would say that even about those I wouldn't necessarily vote for.
I think the qualities we most frequently complain about in politiciansthe dishonesty, the closed-mindedness, the partisan wranglingare the very qualities that we most dislike in ourselves. And we continue to admire the form of government that allows people with such faults to hold office because, after all, they are our people, and they don't just represent our issues, they represent us, warts and all. We elect them, we ask them to do a nearly impossible job, and we criticize them for acting in just the way that we would in their place. Still, that shouldn't stop us from expecting our politicians to act with an extra measure of integrity, wisdom and hope.
About the writer: Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership and associate professor of philosophy at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. He has written and lectured widely on justice, forgiveness, virtue and ethics in society. He received his Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and is a member of the Wisconsin Humanities Council Speakers Bureau.