Hana Callaghan is the director of the Government Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the author of Campaign Ethics, A Field Guide. The opinions expressed herein are her own.
Watching the Sunday morning political shows recently, I was pleasantly surprised with the tenor of presidential candidate Cory Booker’s political discourse. Interviewed by Jonathan Karl on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous, Booker did not take the bait when invited to go negative on his opponents. Rather, he claimed that they could defend their policies, and then he pivoted back to his own positions. When asked whether he could campaign as a “nice guy” when the race required toughness to win, he pointed out that there is a difference between being tough and being cruel. He also reminded Karl that you can’t “campaign wrong and then hope to govern right.”
Remember the movie Network where the lead character, Howard Beale, exclaims, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”? That is how many of us feel about the current state of political campaigns. Our process for electing public officials is born out of the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate. Regrettably, irrelevant, misleading, and vitriolic campaign communications leave us without any real information about where a candidate stands. Also, when candidates incur secret obligations in exchange for endorsements, we don’t know to whom the candidate is beholden. In addition, the amount of money being contributed to or on behalf of political campaigns has never been greater, leaving us with the suspicion that politicians are more interested in representing their big donors than they are in representing the rest of us. As noted by Senator Booker, ethical lapses during campaigns do give us important information—they are a good indicator of how a person will govern once in office.
How do we take back our political process and reign in the bad behavior on the campaign trail? We need to start an ethical campaign movement and let politicians know that we, the voters, want them to conduct civil and ethical campaigns. All things being equal, we need to send a message to the candidates we prefer that the ethical campaigner is the one who will get our vote. Here are a few suggestions on how you can do just that.
Identify what values in a campaign are important to you: such virtues as honesty, transparency, civility and substance might be on your list. Take your list and create an ethics score card to evaluate the campaigns based on these values. Contact campaigns and let them know that the candidate is being graded on his or her ethics and share the score card with them. Tell them that on election day you will not be voting for a candidate who receives a failing grade. Publicize your commitment to the ethical campaign movement by writing letters to the editor of your local paper and sharing your views on social media. Invite others to join this ethical campaign movement by doing the same. And finally make your voice heard at the ballot box. If one candidate stands out as the more ethical campaigner—and of course if you agree with his or her policies—then by all means vote for the ethical campaigner.
I am not endorsing Booker’s candidacy. (I am not in a position to endorse anyone.) However, I do endorse his campaign methods demonstrated to date. Booker recently said, “What called me to run for president is because I think we need a revival of civic grace. We need to reignite a more courageous empathy.” Instead of celebrating campaign bullies and the usual nasty campaign fare, let’s demand that more candidates follow Senator Booker’s courageous lead.