The declining civility and ethics of politics and government can be reversed as good people make their voices heard.
This November cities, counties, and states around the nation are conducting elections. The dominant campaigns in the minds of the American public, however, are not for city council or local bonds but for the next president of the United States—who won’t be elected until a year from now.
Already, however, presidential hopefuls have participated in debates and straw polls. They have raised money and hired consultants, bought TV ads and recruited endorsements.
In the process the problems of politics have started to emerge. The same people who next fall will profess to be best friends now fight bitterly for their party’s nomination. Hundreds of millions of dollars from individuals and corporations and interest groups flow in and out of campaign coffers, and candidates with less-successful fund-raising efforts are quickly discounted. Political consultants busily advise candidates on how to dress and on what stand to take on which issue in which venue.
In the face of all this, many people are tempted to wash their hands of the whole process. They become disillusioned, skeptical, and apathetic. But as good people observe the wrongs in the political process and turn their backs on the system, they commit the biggest wrong of all.
The unwillingness of good, everyday citizens to step forward and be involved leaves the political arena to political professionals and to people lacking in ethical principles. Many people say, “Politics is a dirty business.” Part of the reason it’s a dirty business is many good people don’t participate.
The antidote to the problems of our political process is more participation, not less. Many of us in this country have been lulled into a sleeping pattern about our civic responsibilities. We don’t read the newspaper or otherwise keep up on the issues of the day or the activities of our political leaders. We don’t involve ourselves in political debates or campaigns. We don’t even vote. We have become comfortable and have forgotten that we daily enjoy a degree of freedom and security that is unusual in this world. The peace, liberty, prosperity, and convenience of our society can survive only with vigilant effort from honest, ethical everyday citizens. Within the BYU tradition there is a sense of civic responsibility, and those educated in that tradition need to step forward and act.
Our political system offers many opportunities to get involved. The most basic, of course, is to vote—in every election every year. But there is much more we can and should do to build up our democratic infrastructure.
Educate yourself. It’s absolutely critical to have an educated electorate—people who understand the issues, the positions, and what’s at stake. Electing the right people starts with making an educated vote. Don’t be a one-issue voter; really study which candidate is going to govern better.
Get to know candidates. Attend and organize debates and other public forums with candidates. In those venues the public often can ask questions and get answers directly from the candidate, not from his or her advisors. Such interaction reveals the candidate more clearly and completely than do television commercials.
Become involved in a campaign. Don’t be too reluctant to select a candidate to support. Someone is going to have to fill the office. Find someone you believe in and consider helping in the election effort. You can donate money, walk districts, or gather your neighbors for a meeting with the candidate. If you have a relevant expertise, you can volunteer your services. Many of us may never be candidates ourselves, but all of us can help identify and support people who will govern well.
Run for office. If you are open-minded, have good ideas, and can contribute and remain honest, contemplate running for office. Serve on a panel or a commission. Run for a city, county, or state office. Dedicate your talents and abilities to the betterment of the world around you.
Think local. In politics, people tend to bite off too much; or they think if they can’t do everything, they shouldn’t do anything. Democracy starts at the grassroots level. Get involved with politics in your neighborhood, your precinct, your city. Your local efforts will have a direct effect on your life and can have a ripple effect on the state and national scene.
Stay involved. Everyone—especially BYU graduates—ought to attend their city council meetings regularly. All too often we are happy to read about it in the paper, but only by firsthand experience can we say that we’re exercising our citizenship responsibilities. We are a free society with elected representatives 365 days a year—not just one day in November.
Be wary. The field of politics is full of landmines. As you get involved, pay attention to the ethical, legal, and other boundaries affecting your activities and the activities of those you associate with. Follow a few simple guidelines:
Question intent. Before you get involved, examine your intent. Why are you doing this? Are you getting involved because you have good ideas or so you’ll have a great obituary? Ask the same questions about the candidates you choose to support.
Obey the law. Familiarize yourself with whatever laws apply to the race or political office you are involved with. There are restrictions on how much money you can donate to and spend on behalf of a candidate.
Live by the golden rule. As you plan campaign strategies for one candidate against another, ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone did against me what I’m doing against this person?” If the answer is “I wouldn’t like somebody to do that to me,” then you probably shouldn’t do it.
Watch out for rotten milk. If you open a carton of milk and it smells bad, it probably is bad. The same is true with politics: if something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t right. And if you find something is amiss, you need to be strong enough to speak with whoever’s proposing the bad deed and say, “That’s not acceptable.”
Respect political neutrality. For important reasons, BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are politically neutral. Be careful to not use your connection with either the university or the Church to further political objectives. Using their names, implying their endorsement, or tapping their resources and networks can cause serious problems for BYU and the Church.
We live in a fragile world, where our action—and inaction—has real consequences. Who will resolve debates over the protection of wilderness areas? Who will shape our educational system? Who will grapple with our country’s involvement in Iraq? The decisions made by the politicians we elect are in some respects irreversible and can change our fragile world very dramatically and very quickly for good or ill. It is, therefore, critical that the people we encourage to run for political office and the people we elect are the type of people who will use that power well. We need to go to sleep knowing we, as individuals, did everything we could to ensure that our government functions effectively.
In the 21st century, with so many incredible opportunities for our nation and for the world, we should work collectively to raise the bar of political behavior. Such elevation in our political landscape will occur as intelligent, dedicated, and ethical citizens get involved in our political process.
MORE: The Federal Election Commission outlines legal guidelines for federal elections at fec.gov; click on “Quick Answers” at the top of the page to learn about limits on contributions and other activities. You can review the Church’s political neutrality policy online at more.byu.edu/neutral.
Michael Bailey, a Salt Lake City lawyer, advises political candidates on campaign law and has taught election law at the BYULaw School. Larry EchoHawk, a BYU law professor, is a former attorney general of Idaho and a former Idaho gubernatorial candidate. Patrick Shea, a one-time candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been the director of the Bureau of Land Management, the chair of the Utah State Democratic Party, and an adjunct professor of law and political science at BYU and the University of Utah, respectively.