Part of the problem is the set of incentives that exist in the current system. So, even if you take a person who has a firm foundation of ethics (let’s assume for the moment that’s most people) once they are exposed to the system of incentives in politics they will be swayed to make compromises in their morality.
Consider, first what it takes to get elected to office. You have to raise enormous amounts of money and much of this will come from large interest groups. They will want something in return for the money they give you.
So, suppose you decide to take a completely transparent and ethical approach to this aspect of getting elected. You will openly and publicly declare that donations of any size will not garner any favor with you once you get elected.
What would happen? First, most of your potential donors will seek to donate their funds elsewhere. People will not gravitate towards you as a result of this stance however moral it might be.
So, even before you get elected you are confronted with a deal breaker. You will have to agree to be beholden to the people supporting you. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it contains a strong incentive to “sell out” if necessary.
Another factor is the self-selection process. We all know the grueling process that awaits anyone who decides to run for public office. So, in spite of the claim that many people make that they are doing this for selfless reasons, there has to be a strong attraction to the possibility of having power in order survive the process. So, only those who have this power motivation are going to seek public office in the first place. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no morals or ethics but that a primary motivation for them is the power they will have.
Combine that with the pressure of raising money and pleasing others to remain in power and you have a powerful combination of incentives.
But, even with those factors, it is unlikely that most of the people we elect have “no morals” since it is unlikely that most people in general have “no morals.” What would this even mean?
No, what is far more likely is that we are all susceptible to the lure of power and money and in an area of life where these are willingly given to those who say the right thing the temptation for anyone to succumb to is extremely powerful.
Ideally, we have a system where we obey the rule of law not the rule of men (or women). So, in such a context if a president were to lawfully appoint a replacement to the Supreme Court the Senate would lawfully do its job and hold hearings. That’s what the law says. But, the temptation to wield power seems to overcome even the clearly written dictates of the law.
There are many other examples of this as well. And, the solution, tempting though it may be, is not to look for someone “more moral” to run for office. The solution will involve more oversight of the election process and that oversight must come from the bottom up by voters. But, with voter participation at a very low rate that leaves the field wide open for politicians to say what they need to to get elected and then do what they need to to remain in power.
We’ve seen in recent years how powerful individuals can be if they stand up and collectively assert their desire for change. Same sex marriage is one example where the power of individual action led to major changes. Similar changes could happen with other issues as well but it takes the willing action of individuals. That means all of us.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator