Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical Political Leadership: Speaking Hard Truths

By Judy Nadler

The success of the California recall made it clear that the voters are unhappy with their political leaders. In Sacramento, the governor-elect and state legislature will be convening to discuss solutions to the state's financial crisis. It seems an impossible task: one party following up on campaign sound bites to cut spending and roll back taxes; the other party, the legislature that has been paralyzed by partisanship for nearly a year, and was barely able to pass an overdue budget.

Even as the dust settles on the statewide recall, candidates for local offices and proponents of ballot measures are in the heat of battle for the November 4 election. In carefully worded ballot statements and fiery campaign speeches, candidates are outlining the problems, perhaps the opportunities, and prescribing the solution to issues ranging from affordable housing and traffic congestion in local neighborhoods to fluoridation of the municipal water system. Pressed for answers at candidate's forums, endorsement interviews, and in campaign coffees, few candidates are willing to admit they don't have all the answers. And few are willing to adopt taxes or cut services to pay for programs.

Some part of the responsibility for the unwillingness to speak the hard truths must rest with the public who are woefully mistrustful and uninformed about how government works. When asked why they don't trust government, the top reasons given are that government is inefficient, wastes money, and spends money on the wrong things.

Who is going to speak the hard truths? In an environment of term limits and recall elections, is there any hope that our elected leaders will look at the long-term impact of their decisions? Will we see more deferring of tough decisions, more legislation that puts off to the next generation the problems and debts of the current? Are our leaders going to be willing to risk the support of their constituents by taking an unpopular position? Will the revolving door created by term limits bring more partisanship to local elections? Is there any chance to overturn the unwillingness to hear bad news?

How did we get to this place, and what are our chances of stemming or turning the tide? One possible source of the problem may be the way in which we conduct our campaigns. The huge amount of money needed to run a competitive election encourages alliances along traditional party lines, but has also evolved to include special interest groups. The public perception of "pay to play" has an impact... How can the candidate turned officeholder speak out on Indian gaming issues after taking significant campaign contributions from those interests? If when you're campaigning, you advocate a position in support of controlled growth, but once in office discover the issues are vastly different than you anticipated, how can you fulfill your campaign promises without compromising your ethics by doing the right thing? In some cases, the campaign becomes a series of polls or focus groups figuring out what the public wants to hear, and the candidate promising to deliver on those issues.

What have we done to encourage public sentiment that looks for the quick and painless solution to difficult problems? How can we encourage the public to gain a greater understanding of how government works, and become more involved through boards, commissions, or even elected office?

Has the media contributed to the pressure to say "the right thing" in such a condensed sound bite that it becomes not part of the solution or debate, but the entire debate? With a Google search, reporters can call up a vast history on candidates and their stands, and point out discrepancies in their stated positions. Being consistent is considered good in government, but not at the expense of flexibility.

Once elected, how can or should those campaign promises be fulfilled? Arnold Swarzenegger promised to eliminate the vehicle license fees, a primary source of revenue for local government, but promised to do so without cutting services paid for with those monies. Will the public be willing to be flexible with the new governor; should he and his new team find that there are, in fact, no easy answers to California's crisis?

Ethical decision making asks that you consider all the facts, walk in the shoes of those affected, consider all the options, and evaluate them based on a series of questions, including which does more good than harm, and which is best for the community as a whole. In a state as diverse as California, is there such a thing as "the common good" and if so, who defines it? In issues that run along geographic or demographic lines, does the elected leader have a responsibility to those who elected him or her, or to the broader constituents of the region or the state? If you know that only a certain percentage of your constituents are registered and come to the polls, are you any less obligated to serve their needs?

Consensus and collaboration are important in decision making, but if that means crossing the aisle the political consequences can be painful. One party leader stated his plan to oppose and seek to defeat any member of his party who "defected" on key issues. In this environment, there is little room for independent thinking or speaking the hard truths. Perhaps we should aspire to author James MacGregor Burns' definition of leadership: "Leadership is leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations — the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations — of both leaders and followers. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their followers' values and motivations."

October 23, 2003

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