Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical Political Leadership: Speaking Hard Truths

The Challenge

As the recent California recall campaign and election demonstrate, many are unhappy with the quality of leadership among our politicians. But providing ethical leadership may well mean telling people what they don't want to hear—and possibly facing the wrath of the electorate.

What's at Stake

One reason many people supported the recall of Governor Gray Davis was the charge that Davis had been deceitful about the seriousness of the budget crisis facing the state. Whether Davis lied or was simply mistaken, many facts of life in California politics seem to encourage public servants to equivocate when serious problems confront us. Decisions with implications 10 or 15 years down the road are made by term-limited legislators who know they will not be around to deal with the consequences. Partisanship has become so extreme that politicians who try to find common ground with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle are punished by their own party. In this context, few find the courage to spend their approval ratings on speaking hard truths.

Critical Questions

  • California legislators signed off on a 2003-04 budget that many believe only puts off hard decisions for the next fiscal year. In many cases, these fixes mean this generation of Californians is actually borrowing against future generations. Is this a fair way to proceed, and if not, how can we encourage our representatives to face and make the difficult choices?

  • Alabama Governor Bob Riley shocked the conservative Republicans who elected him by arguing for tax increases for the wealthy on the grounds that the existing code was "immoral" because it unfairly burdened the poor. What does the resounding defeat of Riley's proposal bode for other politicians who advocate for causes unpopular with their own power-base?

  • Is partisanship an inherent and even beneficial facet of our political system, or has it reached the point where it interferes with the common good?

  • Can politicians answer a question, "I don't know"? Bad politics and bad policies are too often the result of ill-considered and misinformed decision-making. But have we created a political climate that makes it impossible for our representatives to admit that they are not expert in every subject?

October 23, 2003

Read the text of Judy Nadler’s presentation on Ethical Political Leadership: Speaking Hard Truths.

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