The Ethical Indignity of Gridlock
The framers laid out the principles of leadership. We need leaders who pay attention.
After a seemingly endless parade of financial, political, and sexual scandals, we finally arrived at the most ignominious one of all: this week’s government shutdown.
Thomas Jefferson foresaw this day when he warned that, “Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.” By putting agenda, ideology, and party loyalty ahead of national interest, our elected officials have not only forsaken their responsibilities as leaders but have betrayed the principles of office.
On both sides of the aisle, politicians defend intransigence as a matter of principle. In truth, they are making a mockery of ethics.
Sincere people can and do reach opposite yet principled conclusions while grappling with the complex issues of our times: the economic and safety interests of American citizens versus compassion for immigrants seeking a better life; global security through investment in a strong military versus domestic security through investment here at home; the threat to financial stability from unchecked government spending versus the danger of civil unrest posed by gutting social programs.
Passionate debate is the cornerstone of a healthy society. But exploiting disagreement for political advantage and personal gain is the antithesis of public service.
This is why we have a two-party system: to force ideological adversaries to seek and find common ground.
The party in power can successfully move the country forward only by when it resists the temptation to impose a tyranny of the majority. The party out of power can successfully fight for its core values only when it cooperates with the majority in setting the agenda for national policy.
The mandate of elected government is to keep the machinery of governance running as smoothly as possible, recognizing that the shift from right to left and back again is merely the natural listing of the ship of state. But shutting down the engines of democracy as a tactic for scoring political points is the ultimate failure of leadership and ethics.
Sadly, with sex scandals, money scandals, and increasingly brazen misinformation dominating every news cycle, it’s no wonder that our national ethics are in free fall. What makes it worse is the expectation among voters that we can’t expect anything better.
King Solomon says, Dutiful justice exalts a nation, but the favor of states leads to sin.
What is the purpose of government? Essentially, to provide a framework of justice and protection under the law. When it does so, government enables its people to aspire toward the higher ideals that are the hallmark of civil society. But government can provide only the framework; after that, it’s up to the people themselves.
By ensuring justice, the state allows individuals to create a society guided by the values of mercy; by attempting to legislate mercy, the state erodes the foundations of justice.
The framers understood this well; they articulated it as the guiding vision of a nation:
We the People of the United States,
in Order to form a more perfect Union – through a system of checks and balances, to be stewarded but not usurped by the will of the majority;
establish Justice – through a system of laws and enforcement that protects the innocent and holds the guilty accountable;
insure domestic Tranquility – against domestic instability, implying a provision for those ill-equipped to care for themselves;
provide for the common defence – by securing our borders and defending our interests at home and abroad;
promote the general Welfare – by overseeing the efficient operation of public services;
and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity – by enabling every person with the opportunity to prosper and succeed through discipline and determined effort;
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Leadership does not mean beating your political opponents into submission to get everything you want; nor does it mean throwing a monkey-wrench into the works when you can’t have your way. It means providing a clear course of direction that adheres to core values while preserving consensus and creating opportunity to the greatest degree possible.
There are true leaders among us. We have to look harder to find them.