Following the Constitutional Convention in 1787, legend has it that a woman asked Ben Franklin, “What kind of government are you giving us?” He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." I’m very afraid that we’re close to not keeping it. As a military officer, the fundamental values were simple and direct: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do.” We are constantly bombarded with cases of government officials who lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate such acts with no accountability whatsoever. Why should elected officials be held to anything less? The US Air Force taught me a great way to assess whether something should (or should not) be done—it was referred to as “the Jack Anderson test.” Jack Anderson (1922-2005) was a syndicated newspaper columnist, and was considered one of the fathers of modern investigative journalism. The “test” was simply this: If something you are about to do (or not do) were to appear tomorrow in Jack Anderson’s column in the Washington Post, could you live with it?
We were lied to about the “need” to invade Iraq. We were cheated by those chartered with oversight of the financial system. Our civil rights continue to be stolen under the guise of a “war on terror.” Why are these things tolerated? Why do we blame “the government?” Governments don’t commit crimes or violate ethical principles—people do. In leadership and management courses I’ve taught, one of the basic tenets is this: when everyone is responsible for something, then no one is. We need leaders who will exemplify integrity and hold accountable those who don’t follow suit. As citizens, we have to vote for candidates because they have character, not because they are Republican or Democrat. It’s been well-documented in management literature that structure drives behavior. Our bureaucratic governmental structure by definition lacks accountability, therefore promoting complacency or the belief that “one person can’t make a difference.”
We can eliminate a major force behind the failures of leadership in this country by taking the money out of politics. The US Supreme Court ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Justice Stevens rightly stated the majority had committed a “grave error” in treating corporate speech the same as that of human beings. He wrote, “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind, and selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” I agree—corporations don’t lie, cheat, or steal—people do.
The problem is that the only people who can fix the system are the ones who benefit from it. Representative government was not designed to be a career; many would argue that our government is not truly representative due to the high percentage of millionaires in office today. Seniority rules in congress; priority number one is to keep one’s seat. In order to do this, incumbents have self-awarded practical advantages over challengers along with the financial advantages of being able to “sell access” (see Justice Stevens above!). There are retirement benefits, premium health care, generous speaking fees, huge budgets for staff, and great job prospects upon leaving (often working for those who donated to the campaigns). As long as elected officials are allowed to be more concerned with themselves than their constituents or their country, this will not change. When every issue becomes win-lose, we all lose.
This is our fault. We get what we deserve by electing convicted felons, not paying attention to the issues, and getting all our information from extremist cable TV talking (or screaming) heads. Critical thinking does not mean being critical of something, especially just because you heard someone else being critical. An idea isn’t bad just because you didn’t think of it. Our political leaders should stop talking so much and start listening more. We should make them listen. We must remind them of James Madison’s words that “a republic is a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” Most importantly, we must know what’s happening and hold people accountable for their actions or inaction. As the saying goes, “Politics is like fishing--you don't have to be a genius, you just have to be smarter than the fish.”