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Integrity in Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 29, 2008

The selection of Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, as John McCain’s running mate has people thinking about integrity again. Palin is a pro-life mother of five who makes no bones about fighting corruption and standing up for the vulnerable. She opposes abortion not only in speech but in personal practice, having resisted suggestions to abort her own Downs-syndrome child. She swept into office in Alaska by exposing and campaigning against serious ethics violations, and she has the highest approval rating of any significant public figure in any state in the Union. With her selection as McCain’s running mate, the word “character” is once again on everyone’s lips. From what we know so far, in other words, Sarah Palin appears to be a woman of integrity.

A Rare Virtue

Integrity is a rare virtue. The three definitions of the term in the American Heritage Dictionary reinforce each other to help us get at exactly what “integrity” means: “(1) Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code; (2) The state of being unimpaired; soundness; and (3) The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.” A person has integrity when all of the different aspects of his personality form a harmonious whole, working smoothly together in proper relationship to each other. Thus, if our minds are undarkened by rebellious passions and attachments, we can more surely perceive the inner reality of things, and our attitudes, emotions, thoughts, speech and action will be brought into unimpaired unity in the service of the true and the good. This is what it means to possess integrity.

For most of us, this is a tall order. It is the work of a lifetime, and it is never perfectly achieved. But a deep commitment to integrity, a continual effort to root out that which impairs our integrity, marks the difference between a person who is generally capable of self-possession and self-direction toward laudable goals, and a person who is likely to be swayed this way and that by inordinate desires, passions and temptations. Since political power holds a great attraction precisely for those persons who are easily swayed by inordinate desires, passions and temptations, we find that significant personal integrity is relatively rare in public life. Undoubtedly in the months ahead, the integrity of all the candidates will be subjected to considerable scrutiny. It will be very interesting to see how they hold up under the microscope. But this fresh focus on Palin precisely because of her reputation for integrity is very welcome indeed.

Elements of Integrity

How do we judge whether a political candidate possesses integrity? There are several fairly straightforward indicators which almost anyone who is interested can figure out. Speaking forthrightly is probably the first and easiest test; it is also one of the last things we expect from politicians. This problem is so bad that every major campaign engenders a series of articles in the press about whether the candidates will pursue a deliberate strategy of waffling, as if this is just another tactical consideration in running an effective campaign—with waffling widely regarded as the most effective approach. Granted that a candidate’s positions will be skewed by the opposing party and blurred in various ways by the media, a clear and consistent message is still discernible (or not) and there is a natural human tendency to respect (and sometimes to fear) such straight talk. A candidate who maintains positions no matter whom he or she is addressing provides significant evidence of personal integrity. By contrast, candidates who tend to say only what each audience wants to hear demonstrate the opposite.

But the consistency of the message alone is not enough. Every culture has a sort of index of approved opinions. It is difficult at times to figure out how certain opinions become culturally dominant (in the sense of being regarded as fully respectable). But some combination of wealth, approval by the “right people”, and favorable treatment in the mass media creates a set of fashionable opinions, and relegates opposing views to a second-rate status. Even without knowing how these opinions are formed, everyone native to a culture knows exactly what they are. I am reminded of a Cuban friend who had fled Communism, a graduate student along with me at Princeton, who preferred the more conservative New York Post to the liberal New York Times. He knew that he could read the Times anywhere, but that the Post had to be smuggled into the restroom under his jacket for reading in the stall.

Indeed, all but the most clueless know by osmosis what is fashionable in ideas just as in clothing, and a great many people set their clocks by it. Unfashionable ideas are backward and outdated. Fashionable ideas are necessarily better because they are “up to date”. It is just barely possible that a politician whose message never deviates from the accepted set of fashionable ideas is experiencing the remarkable luck of a complete correspondence between the zeitgeist and his hard-won, strongly-held beliefs; but the chances are overwhelming that he is better suited to a career as a calendar, which does nothing but change with the times. The sad truth is that those whose ideas are unremittingly fashionable—those who are accepted and lionized by the glitterati and the mass media—almost always lack integrity. They aren’t so much lucky as intent on making their own luck; to borrow an analogy, they are not so much honest women as prostitutes. I don’t say that most of them are fully aware of their lack of integrity, for they may not be sufficiently self-reflective to know themselves well. But a strong correspondence between one’s beliefs and what is fashionable is a powerful sign of a person who is shaped by a desire for approval, a lust for power, or a need to be in the superior group—the “in” group. Such a person is not guided by the demands of reason, and so lacks integrity.

A Look at the Past

Consistency is not much prized in election coverage, and the assessment of fashionability is nearly always used against the unfashionable—the exact opposite of what is sensible. But one thing the media tends to do very well during an important campaign is to examine the past lives and associations of the candidates, unearthing improprieties in their past behavior. Then each side uses what has been unearthed against the other. This is always an interesting spectacle (though perhaps I reveal my own lack of integrity by saying so). What are we to make of it?

With respect to past impropriety, I would say that three rules ought to be applied. First, with today’s level of scrutiny, a clean record may not be possible. Almost everyone has something in his past, or his family’s past, that will not play well in prime time. Second, minor isolated transgressions that occurred a long time ago are not particularly significant. Most people make some mistakes or commit some sins; through the process, they often learn to do better. Recurring or recent problems are far more significant, especially in candidates who have long since reached putative maturity. Third, failures which indicate an inability to keep a commitment are critical. For example, even with the widespread acceptance of divorce in our society, one must at least weigh whether the inability of a politician to keep a commitment to his spouse is indicative of an inability to keep his civil commitments as well.

In assessing all commitments and responsibilities, a rare lapse is one thing. Betraying a serious commitment through repeated improprieties, sins or crimes is quite another. Entirely abandoning a commitment that remains valid is even worse. In the end, an inability to keep a commitment in the face of temptation indicates a serious lack of integrity. While one must beware of the false assumption that someone who has fallen seriously in the past must necessarily remain untrustworthy, it is far more sensible to vote based on past performance than on promises or hype.

We Have Seen the Enemy

All indicators of integrity must of course be taken together, with the recognition that none of us is perfect. Moreover, there are many more indicators which might be very useful if we could only know the candidates well enough to assess them. But voters must generally judge at a distance, and the indicators enumerated here tend to retain their validity even in the absence of intimate knowledge. At the same time, we all know at least one person intimately enough to judge closely: ourselves. We ought to use our assessment of candidates as an opportunity for assessing ourselves. Are we clear and consistent in our speech, or do we revise our ideas to fit whatever group we’re entertaining at the moment? Are our positions on the issues of the day determined by fashion, or have we thought them through deeply based on reliable information and sound, logical principles? Do we set our own commitments aside to go after whatever we want at the moment? And what is it about ourselves that determines what we think we want?

If politics is ultimately all about me, I may well do some good by voting for the candidate I find least attractive. Such a conclusion is hardly likely, of course, for it takes a certain basic level of integrity to perform a competent self-analysis. It also takes at least a modicum of integrity to recognize its lack in others, or to honor it wherever we find it. Inevitably, politics consists largely of the worldly putting the worldly into power over worldly things. Persons of integrity have no lasting city here. But integrity is still possible, and it is still good. Again, that’s why I welcome the impact of the Governor of Alaska on the American presidential race. Apparently by her very presence, she has given new life to the question of integrity.

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