What voters can do when every candidate proclaims the public interest

Actor Martin Sheen as President Bartlet in the TV drama West Wing

Putting the public interest ahead of all other interests is the first principle of good government. But why would a candidate profess anything different? If everyone readily agrees to put the public interest first, what can a voter do? There are three things.

Address conflicts of interest: There is an implied agreement that marks anyone who bargains his independence for the support of a big organization like the Republican or Democratic party. Running for office, gathering signatures, and asking for donations is hard work. Doing it alone without a voter or donor list is extremely hard. The party apparatus makes campaigning much easier. But there is a built-in conflict of interest: loyalty to party versus loyalty to the public.

The first thing a voter can do is to challenge each candidate on his commitment to the public interest. If the candidate is an incumbent, voters can review the candidate’s record. The legislation does not need to have made it into law. The fact that the candidate voted for or against a piece of legislation is enough to indicate how willing he is to put partisan and special interests aside to promote the public interest.

If the candidate is running for the first time, a voter can ask, ‘how will you respond when your party leaders tell you how to vote without asking your opinion?’ It happens regularly at all levels of government, and the goal is usually to promote the party’s interests, special interests, or to make the other party look bad.

If the candidate says that she’ll vote her conscience regardless, then the voter could ask, ‘how do you think your party leaders and other members will react?’ Ignoring her leaders will create friction and diminish, if not obliterate, her ability to be an effective legislator. Part of the implied contract between members and their party is obeying their leaders.

Eschew finger pointing: The second thing a voter can do is to highlight a finger-pointer when he sees one. It happens at all levels of government. Finger-Pointing does nothing to achieve a solution. It lays the blame for a public problem on a particular party or person and seeks to elevate the moral authority of the finger-pointer. It’s political theater and a complete waste of time.

Most Americans understand that finger pointing is a waste of time and would like their representatives to work toward resolving contentious disputes instead point out who is to blame.

Parties and politicians have reveled in finger-pointing for decades, even when it comes to issues that only get worse with each passing year like immigration, social security, and healthcare. Holding candidates to a higher standard that eschews gratuitous finger-pointing is another way in which voters can identify candidates who profess to pursue the public interest, but behave with a us-vs-them mentality.

Look for good manners: Finally, candidates who advocate for the public interest understand that it does not fit into a short, clean phrase or formula. All parties and everyone in between will always contest the public interest.

The absence of a formula or other straightforward process that we can rely on to determine the common good means that we will struggle with the process over and over again. It will be an iterative process, a process that is continually updated with each issue and each policy.

Hence, the public interest is a work in progress, a never-ending process that each day, week, month and year is pursued by men and women of good intent.

An iterative political process requires elected representatives who have a good measure of manners. That does not mean allegiance to a code which stifles and forces people into political corners. Instead, it suggests a non-discriminatory, person-centered etiquette that allows for all opinions to be heard so that a more holistic, equitable, and cost-effective solution can be achieved.

It is the conduct of men and women who understand that no one can read another person’s mind; listening does not imply that the listener agrees with the speaker.

Put another way, artful compromise, thoughtfulness, and civility — the hallmarks of good manners — are the keys to an iterative process that works to resolve our most pressing problems. Candidates without good manners will be unsuccessful at promoting the public interest. Vote for the ones with at least a modicum of manners.

Running for Arizona State Senate in District 23 as an Independent www.voteleone.org

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on July 27, 2018.