Why Political Virtue Matters

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004
When Americans step into the voting booth shortly to choose the people they want representing them in Washington, high on the list of qualities they’ll be looking for in the candidates is personal integrity. To be sure, they will be weighing other considerations as well– party label, ideology, stands on issues of importance, likeability. But most of us also want to know that the people to whom we entrust our hopes for this nation aren’t just in it for themselves. 

The Founding Fathers would approve. Indeed, they were quite clear on which particular quality they thought most important in an elected representative: virtue. It’s an old-fashioned word that is not much in vogue at the moment, yet in a very real sense, the vitality of our democracy depends on what the Founders meant by it. 

Voters today might think of “virtue” in any number of ways: as moral probity, honesty, self-discipline, a sense of responsibility, and, of course, integrity. These are all qualities that citizens look for in their candidates, and understandably so. Yet the Founders had something even larger and more encompassing in mind when they talked about virtue. They were looking for a sense of civic self-sacrifice– the ability to overcome self-interest and act for the benefit of others, especially the community as a whole. 

There is nothing anachronistic about “virtue” when seen in that light. Our Republic functions best when it generates political leaders who are capable of setting aside their own desires for power or partisan domination or pecuniary self-interest, and it suffers when our politicians are incapable of doing so. 

Of course, the Founders also understood human nature. They anticipated that no one could be so virtuous that he or she could be entrusted with unlimited power. That is why they developed a constitutional system of checks and balances aimed at restraining the power of any single person or, indeed, branch of government. 

Yet the Founders were keenly aware that even this was not enough. They were creating a representative democracy, and in a democracy, power ultimately lies with the electorate. In 1788, at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, James Madison laid out what this meant: “I go on this great republican principle,” he said, “that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation... To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." 

The ultimate check, in other words, was to be the American people. In order to preserve our freedoms they, too, must be virtuous– at least, in the civic sense that the Founders had in mind.  As the historian Bernard Bailyn put it, “an informed, alert, intelligent, and uncorrupted electorate” is vital to sustaining the American republic. George Washington, Bailyn once wrote, believed “that the guarantee that the American government would never degenerate into despotism lay in the ultimate virtue of the American people." 

This faith– that man possesses sufficient virtue for self-government– is hardly something to take for granted. The Founders never envisioned the dark arts of modern politicking: the insistence that what is good for me is good for everyone; the evasive answer to an uncomfortable question; the efforts we've seen in recent elections to suppress voter turnout; the television advertising that misleads without actually lying; the “spin” put on the facts by a political operation. Nor could they have foreseen the pressures that make it difficult for members of Congress or other political leaders to step back and disentangle what is best for the country from their more personal preoccupation: the high-stakes gamesmanship of politics today; the influence of campaign contributions; the complexity and sheer quantity of legislation; the bewildering clamor of different voices and divergent needs that confront any lawmaker. 

Under these circumstances, the responsibility that the Founders laid on the American people weighs more heavily than ever: to pay attention, to educate oneself, to discern insincerity and reject misinformation, to enter the voting booth prepared to set aside one’s own self-interest and focus on the good of the country. None of this is easy. Yet that is precisely the expectation that the founders of this nation bore for the generations that followed them: that the American people would not only choose leaders of wisdom and virtue, but would themselves possess the intelligence and virtue to do so. Let us hope we never prove them wrong. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)