The Power of Integrity

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.

3. Consistency matters. A politics of integrity requires that the principles for which our parties and institutions stand truly be treated as principles. Consider as an example the current assault on some aspects of the “welfare state.” A central theme of the argument against treating government assistance as an entitlement is that reliance on aid supposedly cripples self-reliance. Perhaps it does. But integrity requires that the principles on which the government operates be applied consistently. If welfare programs have bad effects on individuals, they must also have bad effects on corporations, and corporate welfare should receive the same scrutiny–and be subject to eh same dismissive rhetoric–as welfare for individuals.

The Progressive Policy Institute has pointed out that corporate subsidies are deeply regressive, providing benefits to a relatively small group of upper-income Americans, largely with money taxed from those earning far less. In other words, corporate welfare programs are like individual welfare programs, except that they transfer tax dollars from low- and middle-income people to upper-income people.

4. Everybody gets to play. A politics of integrity does not draw arbitrary boundaries around the public square, screening out some citizens whose political views have been formed in ways of which various elites disapprove. A particular problem of our age has been the astonishing effort to craft a vision of public life in which America’s religious traditions play no important roles, by ruling out of bounds political (and sometimes moral) arguments that rest on explicitly religious bases. Nowadays, one hears quite commonly the argument that it is morally wrong–perhaps even constitutionally wrong–for you to try to “impose” on me your religiously based moral understanding. Usually this argument is made in the context of the abortion battle. Of course, had this ever been a seriously defended principle of American public life, we would never have had the abolitionist or civil rights movements, to name only the most obvious two.

When I make this point in lecturing about politics and religion, I often get an answer that goes something like this: “But nobody can reason with these religionists. They say that so-and-so is God’s will, and what can you say in return?” I am always saddened by this answer, because, as a university professor, I run into many closed minded people. But nobody tries to ban them from public debate for their closed-mindedness. Besides, this vision of how religious people reason is a caricature. That there are some who cannot be reached by reason is doubtless true. The notion that most religious people are that way seems to me a quite unfounded insult.

I am not suggesting that the pro-life religionists who demand access to the public square deserve to prevail. But I do believe in fair procedures. A politics of integrity must be consistent in its rules instead of fixing the rules so that one side gets to win. If religious advocacy in the public square is bad, then this is as true of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. as it is of the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many thoughtful scholars and journalists argue that religious rhetoric is out of place in the public square. It is simply there. Millions of American citizens seem to have decided that the language of their faith is the language with which they feel most comfortable, and so we must, under our first principle of integral politics, take them as they are rather than commanding them to become something else.

5. We must be willing to talk about right and wrong without mentioning the Constitution. I say this as a longtime teacher of constitutional law and as one who truly loves our foundational document. A politics of integrity must certainly respect citizens; fundamental rights, and must be vigilant in protecting those rights, even when they are exercised by those we disdain: Nazis, for example. But we must never make the moral mistake of supposing that because I have the right to do something, you lack the right to criticize me for doing it.

Individual rights are a good thing, but to make a cult of individualism can lead to social disaster. It is no accident that the United States has among the highest rates of abortion and the highest rate of private ownership of firearms in the world. Our well-known national inability to engage in moral conversation means that once a right exists, nobody seems to feel comfortable urging that it not be exercised. Whatever the source of the moral critique of how we use our freedom, the existence of the Constitution should not be treated as a moral shield. For the constitution is but a reminder that we possess freedom to choose; it does not tell us which choices are best.

6. Our politics must call us to our higher selves. The debasement of political language is particularly embarrassing when the negativity is being spread by our elected representatives. The matter is only made worse when we think that even the polite ones seem too often to be calling us to selfishness. In a politics of integrity, we must try to respond to politicians who call us to our highest rather than our lowest selves; in particular, we must respond to politicians who talk of the national interest and our shared obligations, not merely those who promise to enrich us.

The wealth with which politicians make their electoral purchases comes in a variety of forms, but nearly all of them play to our selfish instincts. Conservatives tend to promise tax cuts, which translate into more money for good honest, hardworking Americans, and less for the despicable them, who may be demonized bureaucrats or welfare cheats, according to one’s taste. Liberals promise entitlements and, better yet, constitutional rights, which translate into more freedoms for good, honest, hardworking Americans against the despicable them, who nowadays are likely to be what wealthy fat cats and liberals sadly persist in labeling the “religious right.” Neither promise offers the vision of a better nation, except in the narrow sense that the nation is better when it gives us precisely what we desire. In other words, neither calls us to duty.

7. We must listen to one another. A politics of integrity is a politics in which all of us are willing to do the hard work of discernment, to test our views to be sure that we are right. As we have already seen, this in turn implies a dialogue, for in the course of our reflections, especially in a democracy, it is vital to listen to the views of our fellow citizens. If our discernment is genuine, then so must our listening be.

People on the right seem to think that the nastiness of our public discussions is the fault of people on the left; people on the left seem to think that it is the fault of people on the right. But there is plenty of blame for all of us. When we are told, as we often are, that affirmative action is as bad as Jim Crow, we are facing a cruel absurdity; when we are told, as we often are, that only a racist could be troubled by affirmative action, we are facing another. I struggle, hard, with my own habit of concluding that people who disagree with me on the important public issues of the day are obviously deserving of my condemnation. I struggle to understand their points of view–even, as Martin Buber urged us to do, to search for empathy. I do not claim to do it very well. What is depressing is how solidly that failure places me in the American mainstream.

8. Sometimes the other side wins. This is, perhaps, the most important principle of an integral democratic politics, yet little need be said about it. The point is simple: In the end, politics comes down to votes. Somebody wins and somebody loses. In practical terms, that means that the people have picked one and rejected the other. Integrity requires us to admit the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) that we lost not because of some shameless manipulation by our villainous opponents, and not because of some failure to get our message across, but because our fellow citizens, a basically rational bunch, considered both our views and those of the other side and decided that they like the other side’s better.

Still the final truth bears repeating: We cannot expect our politicians to create a politics that is better than we are. If we the citizens think only of our own narrow interests, whether they are expressed in terms of “our” tax dollars or “our” constitutional rights, we can hardly expect to find a government, at any level, that operates with a vision of national purpose. Instead, we will find a politics as parochial and selfish as we are. In a democracy, it is not only true that people tend to get the government they deserve; it is also true that people tend to get the politics they deserve.

The article is adapted from Carter’s book, Integrity (Basic Books).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.