Putting the public interest ahead of all other interests has become the first principle of the movement to elect independents to public office. An independent will say something like, if elected I will deliver common-sense solutions, or if chosen I will put the public interest ahead of all others.
These phrases sound great. Putting the public interest ahead of partisan and special interests is, without a doubt, essential to good government. But why would any candidate for public office profess anything different?
If every candidate readily agrees to put the public interest first, what can an independent do to convince the electorate that he will follow through on that pledge, while his party-affiliated counterpart has a built-in conflict of interest with the public?
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. And doing it alone without a voter or donor list is extremely hard.
The party apparatus makes it significantly easier for someone to accomplish the objectives and get elected. And so by accepting the help of a party, a candidate accepts a conflict of interest: loyalty to the party above all else.
It’s why politicians become so candid and altruistic after they announce they will not be running for re-election. They are free to speak their mind and advocate for the public interest because they won’t be needing their party to help them get elected.
Hold the High Ground
The answer to what independents can do may sound simple: hold the high ground, and do not abandon it for any reason.
On top of this, independents must challenge each candidate, one by one, on his commitment to putting the public interest first. If he is an incumbent, the candidate’s record should be scoured for decisions where he failed to put the public interest first.
The legislation does not need to have made it into law. The fact that he voted for or against a piece of legislation is enough to make the case that he is willing to put partisan or special interests above the public interest.
If the opposing candidate is running for the first time, an independent could 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 she says that she’ll vote her conscience regardless, then the independent should follow with, ‘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.
The second thing independents can do is to highlight the finger-pointing that has been happening at all levels of government. Finger-pointing does nothing to move us closer to a solution. It lays the blame for a public problem on a particular party, and seeks to elevate the moral authority of the finger-pointer. It’s political theater and a complete waste of time.
The average American understands that finger-pointing never helps and works to forestall a practical solution. According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center (link below), most Americans believe that their representatives should work to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.
Both parties and their members 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.
Ideology cannot be the end goal
At first, the Republican effort to fix healthcare by repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something better seemed genuine. It was understood that better would be produced before anything was repealed. Who doesn’t want something better? But better is not what the public got.
Republican tinkering has made today’s healthcare marketplace worse, not only when compared to the first years under the Democratic administration, but worse than what we had before ACA ever took effect.
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health insurance exchanges continue to disappear (see link), and in some areas, Americans have no coverage options on the exchanges.
How can reducing healthcare plan options, and in some state eliminating them altogether, without replacing them with anything, let alone something better, be good for the public?
The near decade of Republican banter that started before the party started tinkering with ACA was just that, vainglorious verbal candy. The Republicans had put no thought into actually how to replace ACA, or even how to improve it. It was pure political theater fueled by ideology.
Dogma doing its worst
And healthcare in America could become a lot worse. The Department of Justice, led by Jeff Sessions, is refusing to defend ACA against a lawsuit filed February 2018 (see link). If the lawsuit is successful, the entire Act will be declared unconstitutional.
And if ACA is determined to be unconstitutional, the provision requiring insurance companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions would also be unconstitutional. If that happens, it is estimated that from 50 to 130 million Americans (see link), below the age of 65, not on Medicare, with a pre-existing condition would most likely either lose their coverage or have it significantly altered.
Maybe ACA is unconstitutional. And if it is, then so be it. But following the law is not the only thing our elected officials need to think about, especially when it comes to the health of millions. Our legislators need to replace ACA with something better, and the time to do that is before more than 50 million people are denied coverage for their pre-existing condition.
Nothing, however, is waiting in the wings to replace ACA if it is declared unconstitutional. Instead, Republican ideologues serve up more ten-word answers such as, 'we need to start from scratch' – as if we were baking a cake and had the luxury of time on our side.
Even the healthiest among us, if not daily then weekly, depend on someone with a pre-existing condition, either at work or in his personal life. So even in a strictly self-serving sense, keeping this swath of Americans healthy is in everyone’s interest.
A more mannerly iterative process
Advocating for the public interest was never going to fit into a short, clean phrase or formula. It will be contested by both parties and everyone in between.
No one, even independents, has a monopoly on what it is the common interest. Solutions will be wordy, messy, and labored, one voter, one issue at a time.
The absence of a formula or other straightforward process that we can rely on to determine the common good means 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.
This is the takeaway: 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, who are bound, not by an allegiance to party or ideology, but by a passion for good government.
The doctrine of any party can be a starting point, but it cannot be the endpoint. Ivory towers are nice to look out from or up at, but progress happens on the sidewalks and streets of political dialogue.
Case in point
After nearly six years of public service, Arizona State Senator Bob Worsley wrote, “Blind ideological allegiance to only one of the two buckets has created a political atmosphere where the most poisonous word an elected official can mutter is ‘compromise.’”
Worsley’s op-ed announced that he would not seek re-election November 2018 – an election he most likely would have won – and lamented that the State’s legislative body had lost the art of compromise, substituted oversimplification for thoughtful consideration, and had forgotten its civility. In effect, the legislature has traded good manners for close-minded ideology.
A person with good manners demonstrates more than consideration for another’s feelings. He understands that he cannot read another person’s mind and that listening to someone doesn’t mean he is agreeing with them.
Good manners do not mean allegiance to a code that stifles and forces people into political corners, as partisans might say. It means exactly the opposite. It is 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.
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.
The new independents who are running this election season for federal, state, and local office, will hopefully not respond as both parties have done for decades with finger-pointing and vainglorious ideology. Let’s hope they will seek the public good by committing fully to an iterative process parameterized by compromise, thoughtfulness, civility, and good manners.