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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

An Honest Politician?

It's Not as Impossible as You Think

Hana Callaghan

This article originally appeared in MarketWatch.

Public service is a noble calling, but the process of getting elected to serve is not always so noble. We’ve already had ample opportunity to observe some of the ugly, nasty aspects of campaigning as we approach the elections of 2016: False claims, irregular financing, irrelevant attacks and slurs.

One of my colleagues from another department at Santa Clara University recently asked me: “Be honest. Don’t you have to be a little bit unethical to be elected?”

I am being honest when I say: I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that ethics can actually help a candidate win.

Of course, pretty much everyone who runs for public office believes that they are ethical; however in the heat of the battle it is easy to have ethical lapses encouraged by such rationalizations as, ”If I don’t win, I won’t be able to do all of the good things that I have planned for my community” or “that other guy is bad news and if he wins the community will suffer.”

In other words, we argue, the ends justify the means.

But the public perceives that how a person campaigns is how he or she will govern. If a candidate is less than truthful or engages in dirty tricks in order to get elected, why should we believe that the candidate’s conduct will miraculously change upon taking the oath of office?

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 the voter without any real information about where a candidate stands. Also, when candidates incur secret obligations in exchange for endorsements, voters do not know to whom the candidate is beholden.

Voters often feel disenfranchised, believing that their vote no longer matters and only the rich have a voice.

Citizens are also frustrated by political polarity and resultant lack of legislative productivity. The public perceives that negotiation and compromise are no longer available tools for those who govern due to obligations created during the campaign process. Moreover, unethical political attacks freely dispensed during a campaign can poison later legislative relationships.

This is why statistics for voter turnout and public trust in government are at historic lows. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, only 57% of the electorate turned out to vote in the last presidential election. That means 98 million eligible voters declined to participate. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, public trust in Congress stands at a mere 8%.

Ironically, these dispiriting statistics suggest a possible opening for candidates who care about ethics. Here are just a few actions a candidate could take to inspire public trust:

• Go ahead and run negative ads, but be sure they are about substance, not irrelevant personal characteristics of an opponent.

• Make public all campaign promises to interest groups.

• Repudiate unfair ads and practices by supporters.

• Draw boundaries with donors and limit their influence on policy proposals.

Research conducted by the Center for Campaign Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley and the Institute for Global Ethics shows that voters want to vote for the candidate wearing the white hat — the one who tells the truth, is forthright about where he or she stands on issues, is independent, and doesn’t engage in dirty, attack-style politics.

If that research reflects voters’ true sentiments, 2016 is the year to prove it.

Hana Callaghan is the director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Feb 18, 2016
Government Ethics Stories