The Power of Integrity

Eight ways to save democracy

| July-August 1996

We, the people of the United States, who a little over 200 years ago ordained and established the Constitution, have a serious problem: too many of us nowadays neither mean what we say nor say what we mean. Moreover, we hardly expect anybody else to mean what they say either. What we lack is integrity, a virtue that demands of each and every one of us that we discern what is right and what is wrong; that we act on what we have discerned, even at personal cost; and that we say openly that we are acting on our understanding of right from wrong. The eight principles that follow point toward a politics of integrity. 

1. The nation exists for its people. Integrity requires that we try to live our ideals. What is foremost in the rhetoric of liberal democracy is the importance of the individual—not simply as a possessor of rights but as a full participant in the process of governance. Thus, the first principle of an integral politics is to remember our Kant: People are ends, not means. People, and people alone, are the reason there is a United States of America.

One of the reasons for the growing national disgust with politics, I suspect, is precisely that politicians (along with the activists who feed them money and position papers) tend to forget this. To them, people are means, not to be listened to but to be manipulated—persuaded to change their minds if possible, or controlled if not. This vision of the people of the United States as the clay rather than the potters is not unique to left or right in America; it is, rather, an elite mentality, the shared vision of people who have in common their certainty that they know all the answers, if they could but get those pig-headed American voters to come along.

2. Some things are more important than others. A politics of integrity is a politics that sets priorities, that does not tell the self-serving lie that every program preferred by a particular political movement is of equal value. In the political world toward which we are moving, priorities are essential. Ever since the 1970s voters have been electing presidents who promise a government that is smaller and, in the public mind (I suspect), more controllable. That is, the American people quite sensibly see government size as related to government accountability. Many elections that seem to be about something else are probably about this: People want a government they feel is reachable.

For this reason, the debate over the proper relative roles of the federal and state sovereignties—a debate that conservatives keep promising and liberals keep resisting—is actually a very useful one to have. As a nation, we have good historical reasons to be leery of the phrase “states’ rights,” for it has been used both to permit and to mask racial oppressions that are intolerable. But that is not the same as saying that it is obvious that anything worth doing well is worth doing only at the federal level. To the citizen, democracy most feels like democracy when the apparatus of government is something that he or she feels capable of affecting.

Any political movement that expects to survive into the next century must make its peace with what a strong majority of voters seem to believe: The federal government (or government generally) cannot do everything that happens to be a good idea. Justifications, no matter how thoughtful, will no longer suffice as substitutes for the setting of priorities. Here, integrity becomes crucial because it is folly to pretend that all programs are equally important. Liberals (like everybody else) must begin to draw distinctions. One might say that federal funding for both the arts and school lunches is important, but is funding for the arts as important as funding for school lunches? I don’t think so. Others might strike the balance the other way. The point is that in an era that demands priorities, balances of this kind must be struck.

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