You’re a member of congress. There’s a contentious public issue facing you, the congress and the nation. You know where you stand and what you stand for. But you’re torn.
On the one hand, there’s policy at stake. A bill is up for a vote — a momentous bill, a momentous vote. If the bill passes — and you dearly want it to pass — it will be the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens. If it doesn’t, it could spell not only their continued disenfranchisement, but the downfall of the administration you support with all your heart and soul.
So why are you torn? Because in order to get to point C — the bill’s passage — you first need to get to point B, which happens to be a fork in the road. Point B calls for you to cast a vote for or against another bill. And it’s a tricky question. You came to congress as a freshman in 2009. The bill which we’re called Point B asks that the intention of a previous bill be turned topysy-turvy — a complete reversal of principles that were embedded in the previous bill. And the previous bill was deeply principled in that it called for a public issue to be settled in the democratic way — through an election. Vox populi.
But the bill before you and your colleagues now would overturn that principled bill — and for what? For even higher principles, some would argue — for the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens across the nation.
But you’re torn. If you vote for the bill before you now, you would be casting vote that could be perceived as being a rebuke to a dearly held principle of democracy: allowing the citizens to vote on a public issue. If you vote for the bill before you now, you are vulnerable to the not unreasonable charge by your political opponents of hypocrisy. Your party supported the previous bill which called for the people to decide through an election.
So if you were to now cast your vote along with your party to oppose such a free election, you would be seen as someone who doesn’t stand for anything other than partisanship. You could be seen as just one of those politicians who choose principles over politics only when the principles suit your politics. You could be seen as someone without the gumption to stand up to the pressure of your leadership.
And what would be your defense? That you weren’t yet elected when that previous bill was voted? And thus somehow you feel you’re owed a waiver from principles because you weren’t there back then?
How confident are you that such an argument would cut any ice with the voters? How sure are you that the people who came out for you wouldn’t see your vote as expedient and unprincipled — especially when the opposition media (and even some of the media you have counted on) publish editorial nailing you to the cross of hypocrisy and expediency?
No, you’re going to have to come up with a stronger defense of your vote than that you weren’t around in the not-so-old days when your party supported the democratic principle of elections to settle a public issue. And looking more closely at the previous bill, your opponents could argue that your party didn’t support it out of respect for democratic principles, but in order to avoid the possibility of an opposition governor simply doing what he and his party wanted to do. So your party would not even get credit for casting a principled vote on the previous bill.
What a conundrum! What can you do? What ought you to do?
You could buck your party’s pressure and vote for the democratic principle of a free election to decide a public issue. In doing so, you would be showing that you’re not just another pol who caves in to party pressue. In doing so, you would be showing that you had the heart and soul and intellect to stand for what you assert to be the higher principle — democratic election to decide a public issue. And that in casting such a vote, you are acknowledging that you are willing to sacrifice having it both ways — having not to choose between principles. You would be not be voting against the economic enfranchisement of millions of Americans because you deeply believ in that principle. But by casting your vote on the bill before you, you would be publicly stating that you are not willing to game the system.
That’s what you could think, although you wouldn’t put it that way, of course. You would say that you believe deeply in both principles — enfranchisement of all but also in vox populi, rather than the avoidance of listening to that public voice.
It isn’t easy to be an elected public official. With every vote, your brand is on the line. The perception of you is at risk. Did you act on the principles you were elected for? Or did you abandon them out of deference to pressure and expediency?
Each year the Kennedy Foundation Library and Museum recognize public officials who demonstrate the virtue JFK held more dearly than any other — courage. These officials of both parties and neither party have shown that they acted, voted, spoke from positive, pro-social, pro-democratic, ethical and moral principles — and sometimes at terrible political and personal cost to themselves. Each year thousands of high school students write essays about just such politically courageous public officials — Southern governors who opposed segregation; Liberian women who stood up to terror and rape and refused to be silenced.
I am proud to be a judge in that essay contest.
I am also proud to be a friend of an elected official who is so deeply motivated by principle — and so mature and sophisticated and unselfish and aware — that her votes emerge from a profoundly moral and ethical space, but never a reckless or foolish or self-subverting place.
This is the rare politician the people are rewarded for electing and re-electing. Not because all her votes are “perfect” because there is not perfection on this earth. We can never be utterly free of self-interest, nor ought we to be. Politics, like literary translation is, in some sense, impossible. It is an art, not a science. A conversation and a compromise — at least, up to a point. And the location of that point is what a politician must, unlike the rest of us — decide over and over again in public. And it is this continual pressure to declare, decide and reveal which is why politics is so bound up with courage.