Put brakes on runaway campaign finance train
The 2024 election cycle may bring surprises but there is one certainty. It will be the most expensive election, by far, in U.S. history.
La Crosse Tribune August 26, 2023
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs becoming a wedge issue.
As of April 2023, there were more than 30 bills across the United States targeting DEI initiatives at public colleges. The concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion should not become discarded because of political dynamics between the two parties."
La Crosse Tribune August 5, 2023
Bipartisan voter education critical for 2024.
"Given the nature of the political divide, the potential problems faced in November 2024 will not resolve themselves. In fact, in a sea of misinformation, the problems are far more likely to get worse. Bipartisan planning and preparation can make a difference in Wisconsin." Lee Rasch
Chippewa Herald and La Crosse Tribune July 1, 2023
Where are the voices in the middle?
The voice from the people in the middle has the power to positively influence the dynamic of partisan divide...if we choose to use it.
La Crosse Tribune May 23, 2023
Omaha has a model to quell gun violence, but it took long, hard work.
The Omaha story provides hope. Cities can move beyond blaming and denial toward a safer community. But given the political divisiveness surrounding the issue of gun violence, there are challenges as well.
La Crosse Tribune May 3, 2023
For good or bad, elected leaders are role models.
Does this mean that an ethical leader must ultimately be willing to fall on the sword? Well, maybe. Elected leaders who stand on principle may choose a legacy of integrity as a better alternative than reelection based upon deceit.
La Crosse Tribune April 2, 2023
Former State Senator Bernier Named LeaderEthics Award
LeaderEthics, the non-partisan group based in La Crosse, honors former state legislator Kathy Bernier for being truthful and transparent in her leadership roles.
WXOW News March 22, 2023
La Crosse group recognizes former State Senator Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls for ethical leadership
She publicly spoke out against the continuous election investigations being held under the assertion that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was fraudulent. As part of her stand, she was willing to be interviewed on the national newsmagazine program “60 Minutes” to present her position.
Chippewa Herald March 23, 2023
A Community Conversation about Public Education in La Crosse
In an effort to improve community dialogue,COMMUNITY sponsored a conversation about public education in La Crosse. Aaron Engel (Superintendent of the School District of La Crosse) and Vicki Markussen (Owner of BizNews Greater La Crosse) were the featured speakers. Rusty Cunningham (former Executive Editor of the La Crosse Tribune) moderated the session.
WXOW, March 1, 2023
Program to Explore Public Education in La Crosse
This program will explore declining enrollment, budget challenges and community relations. Available at 7pm on March 1, 2023 at the Lunda Center in La Crosse. Hosted by COMMUNITY and LeaderEthics.
Why is it so easy to misinform about elections?
"Dismisinformation only works when people pass it along. Don't be part of the problem." Lee Rasch
February 15, 2023 Wisconsin Newspaper Association
Rice Lake Chronotype February 19, 2023
Is Gerrymandering Ethical?
"Our population needs and preferences change over time. But fair maps will allow legislators to keep their focus on the people they represent. And that is the ethical thing to do." Lee Rasch
A Candid Conversation with Ron Kind
In a LeaderEthics interview with Rusty Cunningham, former Congressman Ron Kind shared his thoughts on the past, present and future of Congress. "it is amazing what can be accomplished if you are not afraid about who gets the credit"...Ron Kind
Believe in our democractic republic, but don't be complacent
"The expensive divisiveness of the long campaign season should not be considered to be the 'price of democracy.' It is actually the cost of the erosion of democracy."
Support efforts to reign in campaign spending
Who Do Our Representatives Represent?
A cornerstone of our form of government is the concept of representation for the entire constituency, rather than just the simple majority that may vote for an elected official.
LeaderEthics-Wisconsin engaged in election education
"These videos are being distributed to the younger population...that's the next generation of voters as well as candidates" Lee Rasch
September 27, 2022 WXOW News
Local nonprofit seeks to reduce America's Political Divide
The LeaderEthics nonprofit advocates for politicians to be truthful, to be transparent with public information and to unify people rather than divide them, among other pillars of the organization.
September 23, 2022 WKBT News 8
New workshop aims to bridge the political divide in La Crosse
"It's not just politics. When we have this political divide it breaks down trust. It affects our relationships and our families and those things can hurt the community" Lee Rasch
September 7, 2022 WXOW News
The Problem with Bothsideism
"We are far more likely to trust local officials (our neighbors) than national figures...engagement in our local communities is where real change can happen." Lee Rasch
Braver Angels hosts event to bridge the political divide
"We have differences but that doesn't mean there is a right or wrong or good or bad," said Executive Director of LeaderEthics Lee Rasch. "We just have different views on things that are important to us."
Bridging the Political Divide
LeaderEthics, in partnership with WXOW, News8000, 1410 WIZM, the La Crosse Tribune and Great Rivers United Way sponsored Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels in a message about the importance bridging communication during divided times. The full video is provided here.
When an explosion of campaign funding floods a local race
"It is troublesome that more than $300,000 in outside money was spent on a city council election. And even more concerning is that we may fail to recognize who are neighbors really are, as opposed to a stereotypical caricature from a political ad."
The Problems with Partisan Primaries
"A moderate elected official who is willing to work across the aisle may ultimately face a primary election opponent...being 'primaried' for party disloyalty, even if the majority of the constituents stand to benefit from the action."
Misinformation and a Deadly Turn of Events.
There is no question, countering misinformation can be difficult. It may mean running counter to the beliefs of family, friends and neighbors. But it is important to take the first step.
How Important Is Truth?
"If we fail to seek truthfulness in elected leaders, we are likely moving on a downward slope. Ethical leaders must be truthful and they must be unifiers if we are to triumph over conflict."
La Crosse Tribune, April 10, 2022: How Important Is Truth
Ethics in Politics and Business (featuring Lee Rasch)
"This episode puts an exclamation point on the subject of trust and accountability in the workplace as Lee Rasch will discuss trust (or lack thereof) in the political arena. Listen in to see how historically low levels of trust in politicians and political institutions can have the potential to negatively influence trust in the office." Dr.Andrew Temte, CFA - Balancing Act Podcast
Billings, Rude Selected as 2022 LeaderEthics Award Recipients
Each year, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognizes current or former elected officials who exemplify ethical leadership in practice...are truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers and committed to serving the entire constituency.
Jill Billings and Brian Rude Receive the 2022 LeaderEthics Award
The legislative careers of Jill Billings and Brian Rude did not overlap, yet they both conveyed a sincere commitment to service throughout their careers...to their constituents and the state. Lee Rasch suggests, "Our political process will be in a much better position with more people like Jill Billings and Brian Rude".
Link: WKBT News
What Do We Expect? What Do We Accept?
"If we expect ethical leadership in business, education, health care and other fields, why would we accept that it cannot occur in politics? Can elected leaders work to support their entire constituency, not just the simple majority that voted for them? Can elected leaders recognize that supporters of the other political party are not the enemy, rather they are people with different needs and views? Apparently, Americans believe, in general, these things are possible."
Article by Lee Rasch, La Crosse Tribune, 2-27-22 link: What Do We Expect? What Do We Accept
You Just Don't Know Who to Trust!
Maria Ressa is a co-recipient for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa leads a news organization in the Philippines and has dedicated her career and risked her freedom to promote truth. She is a model for ethical journalism. To state it plainly. Maria Ressa believes facts are important. She summarized the challenges we face in her statement, "Without facts, we can't have truth. Without truth, we can't have trust." Maria Ressa does not accept half-facts and neither should we. Article by Lee Rasch
Pay It Forward in Politics?
"We don't know whether elected officials (or anyone else for that matter) will use these examples as a reason to do the right thing for someone else. Yet, over time, the practice of paying it forward does have a measurable positive impact."
published in the La Crosse Tribune 12-26-21, Link: La Crosse Tribune, Pay It Forward
Americans Are Tired of the Gerrymander Dance
"Gerrymandered districts when coupled with a climate of hyper-partisanship is a deadly combination for the integrity of the American democracy."
published in the La Crosse Tribune 11-28-21 Link: The Gerrymander Dance
The Third Congressional District Race Should Get The Third Degree...an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune, 10-24-21
"If we are committed to demanding ethical leadership in the 3rd Congressional District, the third degree is warranted in the 2020 election"
Link: The Third Degree
Common Ground Is Higher Ground...an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune, 9-26-2021
"Think about how much more powerful this could have been if Congressional members could work together on behalf of the people of Wisconsin and the country in doing what they were elected to do."
Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin...an Open Dialogue
Available via live-stream on the Facebook pages of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, Democracy Found and the Chippewa Herald.
Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin
Journalist, Tom Milbourn, led a conversation with panelists Sara Eskrich, Austin Ramirez and Rep. Joel Kitchens regarding the Final-Five Voting legislation being considered in Wisconsin.
Link: WXOW Final-Five Voting
Representative or Partisan
"As voters, are we able to support the concept of a representative government as the American founders intended. Are we satisfied (or dissatisfied) with the outcomes of government? And do we vote accordingly for our elected representatives? Or are we caught up in the partisan conflict and surrender our vote to political party leaders? Do we expected elected officials to represent us...or handpicked political party leaders? The question remains, as citizens and voters, what do we expect?"
Editorial published in the La crosse Tribune, June 6, 2021 Link: Representative or Partisan
Debating the Facets of Hell
"If leaders contribute to the structural conflict, or fail to take steps to address the conflict, the conflict will grow, often uncontrollably. In other words, all hell breaks loose. And in the resulting debate, we can find ourselves arguing over the symptoms of the conflict, essentially 'debating the facets of hell'. There may be little dialog about how we got here and, more importantly, how we move out of this dynamic." Lee Rasch
Editorial published in the La Crosse Tribune, May 2, 2021 La Crosse Tribune, May 2, 2021
Our Electoral Process...a Vicious Cycle
"While in a vicious cycle, we are not protecting the status quo...rather we are protecting the worsening of the situation".
Published in the La Crosse Tribune, April 11, 2021 link to article
The La Crosse Tribune Endorses Final Five Voting in Wisconsin
LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is pleased to see support for Democracy Found and the bipartisan-sponsored bill...Final Five Voting. As stated in the editorial by Lee Rasch, "We believe this is a serious effort designed to curtail the hyper-partisanship we are seeing in politics today."
March 21, 2021 Final Five Voting Deserves Support
Caught in the Vortex of Misinformation
Many believe we are in an infodemic, as misinformation on social media becomes a greater influence. Published in the March 7, 2021 issue of the La Crosse Tribune.
Change Starts With Our Expectations
In the January 31, 2021 issue of the La Crosse Tribune, Lee Rasch discusses the importance of establishing expectations for ethical leadership.
Becoming a Candidate on an Ethical Leadership Platform
"We need to expect ethical leadership from elected officials. It's as applicable in politics as it is in business, education, healthcare or any other area."...Lee Rasch
WKBT News 8000 video, ethical leadership
It's Never Too Late to Recognize the Right Thing
In this La Crosse Tribune editorial, the focus is on recognizing ethical leadership in practice as a way of encouraging elected officials to consider "doing the right thing".
Inspired Minds Podcast: LeaderEthics-Wisconsin
Lee Rasch is engaged in a conversation with Sam Scinta, President and Founder of IM Education, and Rick Kyte, Director of the DB Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.
Disinformation on Social Media
Lee Rasch is interviewed by Tyler Job of WKBT regarding concerns about disinformation in social media in advance of the November 3rd election.
The Cap Times Max Witynski & Jessica Christoffer - Wisconsin Watch
One Answer is to avoid liking or sharing suspicious or inflammatory content, according to Lee Rasch, the executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, a La Crosse, Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes integrity in American democracy." Wisconsin Watch - Cap Times
A Big Breath of Fresh Air
A guest editorial was written by Lee Rasch supporting the announcement of the SafeVote Wisconsin Coalition...a bipartisan effort to promote safe opportunities to vote in Wisconsin elections during the pandemic. - La Crosse Tribune 7/26/20 A Big Breath of Fresh Air
COVID-19 and the Principles of Ethical Leadership
As elected officials, ethical leaders are truthful, transparent, unifying and representing all constituents...
La Crosse Tribune March 22, 2020 Principles of Ethical Leadership
An Ethical Approach to Leadership
"Leadership" and "Ethics." Putting those words together in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms given today's political climate.
As Disinformation Online Grows, Wisconsin Group Hopes to Educate Voters Ahead of 2020 Election
New 2020 Citizens Guide Offers Voters Practical Tips On Asking Candidates About Ethics, Spotting False Information Online
By Hope Kirwan - Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2019, 5:55am
WXOW La Crosse - Leader Ethics-Wisconsin releases guide to help citizens advocate for ethical leadership in politics
Ethics in politics is behind the push from a Wisconsin group as the 2020 season starts to ramp up.
WEAU - Eau Claire
WKBT News La Crosse - 2020 Citizen's Guide
LeaderEthics-Wisconsin released the 2020 Citizen's Guide to Ethical Leadership Among Elected Officials. The 2020 Citizen's Guide provides background information and practical suggestions for citizens who wish to heighten the awareness of ethical leadership.
WKBT News - Millennial Panel Conversation Hopes To Prepare Leaders for Tomorrow
The Leader Ethics-Wisconsin La Crosse Chapter host a panel of next generation leaders. The topic: Ethical Leadership Among Elected Leaders
Wisconsin Public Radio - Central Time
Listen to Rob Ferrett, host of the WPR program, Central Time, interview Lee Rasch. The topic is: Wisconsin Group Working to Ensure Ethics in Government.
La Crosse Tribune - Tribcast: LeaderEthics - Wisconsin
Listen to LeaderEthics-Wisconsin's Executive Director Lee Rasch and Rusty Cunningham of the La Crosse Tribune as they discuss the principles of ethical leadership, the need for ethics in the political world, and the mission of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin!
“Leadership” and “ethics.” Putting those words in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms given today’s volatile political climate.
But Lee Rasch is determined to change both the perception and the reality of that premise. After serving as Western Technical College president from 1989-2017, he is now executive director of LeaderEthics Wisconsin, a nonpartisan organization founded last year that seeks to “promote ethical leadership among elected officials,” he said during a meeting with the Leader-Telegram editorial board. “It seems like we’re trending in the wrong direction,” said Rasch, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1994 and 1996. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in Congress standing up for (ethical leadership).”
The organization defines ethical leaders as honest and truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers rather than dividers, and representative of their entire constituencies. LeaderEthics Wisconsin (leaderethicswi.org) has chapters in La Crosse and Madison and is seeking to add Eau Claire to that list. Rasch emphasized that it’s a grassroots effort. “The change is going to happen here,” he said, “not in Washington or even the state Capitol.”
Key concerns for LeaderEthics Wisconsin include the public’s eroding trust in government and a widening gap between Democrats and Republicans as people slide to extreme positions. And the dissemination of faulty news is at the core of those trends. “Disinformation is a bigger issue than campaign finance reform and gerrymandering,” Rasch said. As for the 2020 elections, LeaderEthics Wisconsin cites a report by Paul Barrett of the New York University Stern School of Business that makes some unsettling digital predictions that include:
LeaderEthics Wisconsin developed a citizens guide that provides guidelines and resources on ethical leadership. One suggestion is to not “like” or “share” social media posts that appear “falsified, exaggerated or dated” and encourage others to do the same.
The nonprofit organization also produces a monthly ethics report that’s reviewed by a panel of judges to ensure its content isn’t biased. “Any content that is determined to lack balance, fairness or objectivity will be removed from The Ethics Report prior to distribution,” reads the group’s website. Tom Lister, a former Jackson County Circuit Court judge who retired in 2014, is a member of the panel. Past speakers at events have included Dave Skogen, chairman for Festival Foods, and Brian Rude, a former state legislator who is vice president of Dairyland Power Cooperative. LeaderEthics Wisconsin holds candidate development programs as well.
Rasch also highlighted the work of New York-based Better Angels, which describes itself as “a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.”
A more local, personal approach also can have an impact, Rasch said.
“When you see good, ethical leadership,” he said, “compliment them, recognize them.”
Nevertheless, Rasch admitted the organization’s goals will be challenging in today’s environment.
“This is going to be a long haul,” he said.
Maybe so, but it’s certainly a road worth taking.
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor
LeaderEthics-Wisconsin's New 2020 Citizens Guide Offers Voters Practical Tips On Asking Candidates About Ethics, Spotting False Info Online ... wanted to empower more than just its members to ask candidates about their morals ... group defines ethical leaders as truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers rather than dividers, and willing to represent their entire constituency.
"Those four principles, they're pretty rock solid if you were a senior leader in health care or education or business or the service industry," [LE-W's] Rasch said. "It's the irony that that's true in all of those other occupations except the political arena. And so we have to get people to think 'why would we accept that and why can't we raise that bar?' ... We have to start there, by the local community, and how that can impact the people who are either state legislators or possibly federal, but that's going to take time. Superficial change can happen quickly, but substantive change just simply takes time." Bangor SD's library media guru Olson said adults need better education about the integrity and motivation behind blogospheric info, "If you don't have accurate information, you can't make informed decisions. And if you're making decisions based on inaccurate information you're actually hurting people based on what you're trying to achieve with your political agenda or your civic agenda." https://www.wpr.org/disinformation-online-grows-wisconsin-group-hopes-educate-voters-ahead-2020-election
A relatively new non-partisan/non-profit group in Wisconsin is working towards promoting integrity in American Democracy by advocating for ethical leadership practices among elected officials. The group, LeaderEthics – Wisconsin, started a La Crosse chapter in September 2018. A Madison chapter has started, and groups in Eau Claire and Racine may be next. The Executive Director for the organization, Lee Rasch, discussed the ethical requirements for business professionals, and the ethical training those going into business leadership can take, but said there is no ethical training for those running for public office. Rasch wants to see ethical behavior become a part of the political arena.
LeaderEthics believes ethical leaders should: 1.) be truthful, 2.) be transparent with public information, 3.) be unifiers, not dividers, and 4.) committed to represent their entire constituency not just a political party. Rasch told The Wheeler Report he believes change comes from a grassroots effort by voters to start holding their elected officials responsible for being ethical, and to start asking different questions of candidates. Rasch said he believes at candidate forums citizens should start asking questions like:
A report released by Rasch to The Wheeler Report, discusses the impact social media has on the election process. The LeaderEthics report highlights information from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Russian Organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The report said more than 30 million Americans liked and shared the fabricated and divisive IRA stories and pages on Facebook and Instagram. Paul Barrett, Deputy Director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights projects expanded use of disinformation on social media will play a large role in the 2020 election cycle. The Stern Center projects:
Rasch said people who want ethical leadership need to understand the use of disinformation in the electoral process and stop it. Rasch said it is important that people not “like” or “share” everything they see on the internet and on social media for several reasons. The first is it continues the spread of the disinformation, and second it creates privacy concerns leading to data collection by big companies. Rasch emphasized people should use sources like the News Literacy Project to provide updated insight and suggestions to help people identify misinformation.
Rasch said he believes change is likely something that will come over a generation and will require a grassroots effort to make happen. Rasch shared that the events in La Crosse are drawing an engaged and bipartisan crowd, and Rasch added he was excited to see the number of young people showing up at the events.
Rasch, and LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, says the next generation of elected officials are likely going to come from the local level and it is important that people get involved and demand ethical behavior from them. Rasch said, “A lot of people are glad to hear we are going this. People are turned off of politics, therefore disengaged. We need to get people engaged. We need to get young people involved at an early stage.”
Kathleen Culver, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, spoke on "Truth, Trust and the Future of American Journalism" at the March 2019 La Crosse Chapter event.
Ethical Leadership Overview video by Lee
When I accepted the assignment to speak at this event, I did not expect it to be challenging to write my remarks. After all, I have been actively involved in politics for 44 years! That’s right, 44 years. I’ve been a volunteer, a campaign manager, a legislative staffer, a legislator, a legislative leader and a lobbyist. But I found the assignment difficult because these are difficult times in the realm of politics and government and it is challenging to encompass all of it in one set of comments.
Of course, one danger of this lofty four-decade perspective is that I have become one of those curmudgeonly old men who sit on a park bench and watch the world go by, saying “things were different when I was in charge. Those were the good old days.”
And of course, we all know that in politics there have never been perfect “good old days.”
If I had given a speech on ethical behavior when I began in politics, almost the entire focus would have been on the dictionary definition that simply says, “doing what is morally right, not wrong.” At that time, ethical behavior was a huge political issue, and it referred to what today might be called graft or financial corruption. It was largely about people taking advantage of their position to make money.
From the time of the Wisconsin Territory, people have questioned the ethics of elected officials.
Start with the selection of the State Capitol. Students of Wisconsin History know that James Duane Doty was the man responsible for Madison being selected as the site of the State Capitol.
Doty had the vision to buy 1,261 acres encompassing what is today downtown Madison. He paid $2,400 for it. He laid out the square and the streets, named it Madison, and set about making it real, making it the capital, and making himself rich.
Just 23 days after Doty's survey, the first territorial legislature met at Belmont, which was serving as the provisional capital. There was a raft load of capital candidates, including Belmont, Green Bay and Milwaukee. After 42 days, Madison won by one vote. It was a compromise; the site was between Green Bay and the lead mines, between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan.
According to records, Doty almost assuredly bribed delegates and their friends and family with town lots in the new Capitol. One member recorded that Doty also offered delegates buffalo robes in the cold, drafty temporary capitol.
Doty, the Wisconsin Historical Society notes in an article, ended up making about $35,000 on the sale of his Capitol site.
Fast forward to another critical part of our state’s history. By the late 1800s, Wisconsin was an economically successful state. And the most successful parts of industry literally owned the legislature. Free rail passes for state legislators assured continued favorable treatment of the rail business. Lumber barons selected the US Senator.
When a 35-year-old district attorney named Bob La Follette met with Republican leader Philetus Sawyer, he was offered a bribe to fix a court case. That was the last straw for La Follete who ran for Congress and set about changing the power structure in the state and changing forever the view of ethical behavior in politics.
But some level of personal graft and corruption continued in politics throughout most of the 20th century. An official 1947 guide for new legislators gave information on free theatre passes, football and basketball tickets and medical care at the University Hospital. Local government officials frequently enjoyed hunting and fishing trips sponsored by road contractors, elected officials often pocketed license or registration fees and representatives at a
So, this level of “ethical corruption” was truly the biggest challenge reformers faced.
Wisconsin formalized ethics laws for state elected officials in 1973. At that time, only four other states had ethics laws at the state level. In 1977, the laws were extended to judges and most state officials and in 1979 local officials. Wisconsin became known nationally for our tough ethics standard of elected officials not being allowed to accept any gifts, not even, it was said, a free cup of coffee.
From time to time, there were violations of these ethics laws, at the state and local level. There were fines and even jail time levied for fishing trips, air fare, sport coats, Packer tickets, personal phone calls and failure to file ethics reports.
But the bottom line is the laws have largely worked. Government corruption, in terms of personal enrichment or personal gifts, has largely been eliminated.
And yet, there’s a feeling today that government has become unethical. It’s not that direct unethical financial behavior... it’s a belief that government officials are not conducting themselves with the standards we would expect from a representative government. This is not a partisan issue, it is a view shared by many across the political spectrum.
I do think it is important to state up front that there are many examples where the system is working well. There are many elected officials at all levels – school board, municipal, county, state and federal – who work very hard to conduct themselves and their business appropriately. There are still examples where bills are carefully thought out and debated, and where they even pass unanimously.
Your LeaderEthics organization has come forward with four key principles of ethical leadership. Those principles are that government leaders should be:
For myself, I accept those tenets of ethical behavior and feel they are important traits for elected officials at all levels. And I would add some of the principles from my time in public office:
Any objective observer would note that there are problems today with a lack of these core ethical leadership principles by many elected officials. And there’s a feeling by many that our current political system itself has become broken by a lack of these principles and the behavior that follows.
If you just follow the media for a month you could find evidence of ways our system is broken. You would find:
Now, as I went through those examples, I bet every single person has in their brain an image of someone who they believe typifies these negative trends that are so destructive of our government system.
We might all agree the political system appears to be broken, and much of government action unethical. But we could differ wildly on whose fault it is, and who are the real offenders. Much depends on your perspective and your own worldview of politics.
The fact is, there are many offenders and there is much wrong across the board. Find an example of a violation by an elected Republican and you can match it with similar behavior by a prominent Democrat. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
So, what are root problems of this dilemma, and what would I propose to fix them?
I left elected office in 2000. I was beginning to see challenges and issues breaking then that I could see were going to change politics, and governing, for the worse. I did not leave for those reasons, but it made it easy for me to make the decision. I would cite five major challenges that have contributed to this breakdown in civil, honest, ethical behavior:
So, what’s the issue with being part of a tribe? My view is that a fundamental principle of this tribal view is that your side is right even when they clearly are not. And the other side is always wrong.
This view simply does not allow for the prospect of finding a middle. Or for focusing on complex solutions to complex problems. People who seek compromise and solutions are viewed as enemies of the tribe. On the Republican side they are RINOs – Republicans in name only – and the Democrats DINOs – Democrats in name only. They are often chastised by other tribal members as more vile and evil than even the members of the other tribe! David Brooks, the New York Times, calls it “cult conformity. The situation looks like the religious wars that ripped through Europe after the invention of the printing press,” Brooks says, “except our religions now wear pagan political garb.”
The tribal view is hardened by members only hearing their own media, only talking to those who share their view, and believing only the leaders of their tribe speak the truth. In the extreme, the tribe even picks which facts are facts and which are not.
Defenders of this view say traditional bipartisan government has failed them. One of my former colleagues observed that those of us in government in the past may have misread how unhappy the public was with government. He said we thought they wanted a bipartisan government that arrived at consensus solutions. And he said it is clear the public – or at least a lot of them – view this today as not only a failed approach, but as exacerbating the problems we face. They want a consistency in message and action with no compromise and no consensus.
Defenders of tribalism also note that at critical times in our history, leaders saw the failures of consensus and brought about radical change and that these moments of revolution were some of the proudest in our nation’s political history. They note that consensus government supported slavery, and the Republican Party was created to destroy it; and a century later the consensus government sanctioned the civil rights of blacks to be routinely abridged, and Martin Luther King and a host of warriors stepped outside of the consensus to bring that sad legal chapter to an end.
I do not advocate that people forget their principles or fail to use their constitutional right to state their beliefs in a solution to a problem. And I do acknowledge there are times when one most stand for a principle regardless of the political cost.
But I advocate a return to a belief that we can work toward solutions within the framework of our ideology given the dynamic pluralism of our society and the government structure which is built to encourage compromise and cooperation. Even when you have principles, compromise is not a bad thing if it moves the outcome your way, even a little.
Gilbert and Sullivan noted in the musical Iolanthe that one of the issues of government is that members of parliament must leave their brain and cerebellum outside and vote just as their leaders tell them too.
In American politics, our partisan tradition has never been so strong as to require straight party-line voting. But modern tribalism, does in fact require members to check their brain at the door. It does not encourage independent thought, or a creative search for solutions. It only requires absolute loyalty.
My daily work at Dairyland Power is on behalf of the electric cooperative movement. We came about through an act of the President and Congress way back in 1935. In a world where most businesses and groups have become more and more partisan and more part of a tribe, we fight to stay bipartisan and interact with elected officials of both parties.
There are times Republicans best represent our interests, and there are times when Democrats best represent our interests. And there are many, many times, where a compromise between the two parties has allowed our movement of powering communities and empowering members at the end of the line to move forward. We do not believe in being part of either major partisan “tribe.”
It could be we succeed at this because cooperation is in our DNA, but truthfully, it is also a smart business model for us. We have the advantage of numbers when we need to call on people for help. It has worked for us again and again. But it is increasingly difficult to follow this approach because elected officials are always trying to find out if you part of their “tribe.”
Hidden in our success, however, is a gem which I think is the answer to the tribalism which pervades our system, and the gridlock it can bring about. The answer is that we approach our elected officials the old-fashioned way…. we tell them what we are about, educate them on the issue we face, and sincerely ask for their help. We often bring 50 or 60 cooperative members to Washington, or several dozen to a Madison office, and we share our views and lobby for change.
Polls show less respect for lobbyists than almost any other profession. Somewhere around used car salespeople. That’s tragic, because lobbying is really an important part of the governing process, guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is the right of an organization or an individual to talk to elected officials and tell them how legislative proposals will impact them. It’s education.
And if done right, lobbying can still work. We continue to press our issues and causes this way.
This old-fashioned way of impacting government works, but we know today’s elected officials feel the pull of the tribe. They are cautious about stepping out of their secure zone on issues. The tribe dominates their thinking and stokes their fears.
I have had countless conversations with officeholders of both parties who indicate privately they wish they could work at solutions, at consensus, at problem solving. Some of these people would be known as radical conservatives or ultra-liberals. They feel, however, constrained by the tribe. They know that thanks to money, media, reapportionment, breakdown of the community and their tribe, if they waver they will be defeated.
They are good people. They are smart, principled, and have the best interest of their country at heart. But they are afraid to be bold and buck the tribe to represent the collective interests of their constituency and be a unifier, not a divider.
The challenge I have for the people in this room, and for those who care about politics, is that we need to build a new movement that supports politicians who can reach across the divide and work to solve problems.
If this country would develop a new movement that specifically supported elected officials who would work for consensus, politicians would respond. My fondest wish is that a new national news network would be launched with an emphasis on consensus building and problem solving. It might change the public square debate and support candidates who have that agenda.
Those who would lead such a movement need to be careful, however, to avoid the same traps that we seek to overcome. It is so easy to condemn one elected official and overlook the same types of sins committed by another. It is so easy to have one standard of behavior for one issue and a totally different standard for another.
LeaderEthics is a great initiative because we are coming together to talk…. talk about what we ask for and expect in our elected officials and how we can raise the bar to go there. Conversation is what is missing between the tribes. And this initiative inspires conversation.
I believe there will come a time when we will turn from the negatives which are making our government such a divisive and ugly place today. I believe we will see a return to civility and discussion of issues and finding ways to achieve common ground. And I believe you are here tonight, spending your time to think about making the world a better place, are where it can begin. I encourage you to continue that support.
In the end, the four principles of this organization are worth fighting for and striving for in our community, state and nation:
Step up and ask your elected officials to strive for this kind of ethical behavior. And sometime soon, we will see change in how our elected officials do conduct themselves.
There was a good discussion at the Community Conversation.