Ethics in politics no laughing matter

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Ethics and politics is a growth industry.

Were there a stock called "Ethics and Politics Inc." and had you been able to purchase a few hundred shares in the mid-1990s, then you would have already doubled or quadrupled your initial investment. Hold that stock till 2010 or 2020, and you'll probably be rich.


People laugh when I tell them I teach a course in ethics and politics. I once taught a course in ethics and business and people laughed when I told them that, too.

Yet they clearly think that the combination of ethics and politics is more bizarre than the combination of ethics and business. "Isn't that a contradiction?" they say of both. "Is that an oxymoron?" they ask of both. But the political world always takes the prize. Nothing could be more oxymoronic than ethics and politics.


Truth is, in the last few years people don't laugh in the same way. Now they laugh, make a derisive hackneyed comment and then offer a reflection like, "Actually this is pretty important stuff."

We are, I believe, at a critical juncture in our attitudes toward ethics and the political world.

Many people who otherwise would not be interested in ethics and politics or politics itself are now interested in a range of questions about ethics and politics. The issues include campaign finance laws and the role of paid media in candidate campaigns; the use of negative advertisements, especially ones that distort an opponent's record; the lobbyist practices; the personal conduct of the president or other public leaders; and manipulative ways the Internet can be used by candidates and issue-advocacy organizations.

The attention being given to the whole area of ethics and politics is a good thing for our society. But the developing dialogue should recognize a number of things.

The rise of the political consulting profession, and more broadly the whole field of political management, has created a political world in which power is dispersed more than it was in the past.

In campaigns, for example, politicians typically employ a range of managers to help them achieve victory. These political managers -- campaign managers, political strategists, media consultants, opposition researchers -- have enormous influence over politicians.

With this influence the question often debated is whether these political managers have any moral responsibilities to the public above their contractual obligations to their clients. The academic debate is over whether political management is a business or a profession. But the common- sensical answer is that when you gain more power and authority in your work, you also gain more responsibility toward both your clients and the people who are affected by your work.

The need to bring values of civility, honesty, respect, fairness and even compassion to the political world is discussed by many, including President Bush. History teaches, at the same time, that the political sphere is unlike all other spheres in society.


Politicians, we have been told by thinkers ranging from Plato to Machiavelli, will at times need to act in ways we would otherwise judge to be immoral in order to promote the public good. Tell a lie to prevent nuclear war -- you better believe it.

In some cases -- for example the need for stringent ethics laws regarding lobbying in our own state -- we must be extremely demanding of politicians and political managers.

Where the law has no role, however, it will be harder to uphold extremely strict ethical standards. Inbetween putting white gloves on the players in the political world and permitting whatever it takes to bring victory, be it in a candidate or issue campaign, lies a reasonable middle ground for American politics.

If we laugh too much when we hear ethics and politics we may be both overlooking the honorable conduct of so many players today and thinking that the challenge is to put white gloves on everyone. It's time to stop laughing and look hard at the complexities of the new political world and the responsibilities we can reasonably expect of those who work in it.

David M. Anderson teaches Ethics for Political Management at the George Washington University' s Graduate School of Political Management.