James F. Bracher is president of the Bracher Center for Integrity in
Leadership in Monterey, Calif.
Where's the integrity in the election process?
by James F. Bracher
WHAT horrible lessons are we teaching the next generation
about freedom and democracy when we allow our candidates
for public office to treat each other so badly?
When children hurl insults at one another, they are
given "time outs" and told to think about
their destructive behaviors and apologize for their
In contrast, some candidates for elected offices across
this nation, all the way to those pursuing the presidency,
are cheered when they castigate competitors, while
denigrating members of opponents' families, including
spouses, children, and parents.
Criticizing competitors unfairly and disparaging those
with whom we disagree propels a culture toward destructive
battle lines. Those who engage in this personal attack
approach are seeking the voting public's sanction for
their vile rhetoric.
These architects of anger are able to fuel their relationship-eroding
behaviors by stirring up those who vote to accept their
self-serving and righteous condemnations of those who
see issues differently. This venom will poison the
body politic and destroy the democratic organism that
is the promise of America, where fair play and civility
are supposed to reign supreme.
If automobile manufacturers slammed their competitors
in the way political parties do the opposition, by
doling out millions of dollars to create vicious attacks
on those who offer a different promise and program,
the buying public would react in disbelief.
Chances are that the "attacking" vehicle
manufacturer would suffer diminished sales.
If the medical community allowed or encouraged its
professionals to disparage peers through personal
attacks, patients would be immobilized. Their anxiety
would cause them to ask who they might trust to
care for their health needs.
Doctors are obligated to make the commitment to honor
their profession, monitor their own standards, and
when called for, to solicit second opinions, seeking
the additional expertise of colleagues.
If other professions are behaving in mature ways,
then politicians, who are asking for us to vote them
in so they can accept the mantle of responsibility
for sustaining our freedoms, should behave with the
What is wrong with recognizing that a competitor
is doing a good job? What is so harmful about acknowledging
that someone else has a good idea?
One would assume that when the world's future leadership
is at stake that neither candidate would be so awful,
ignorant, incompetent, or unscrupulous that society
would collapse with their selection. Why not praise
the competitor? Other professionals operate that
way because they recognize the contributions of those
whose skills lie in their fields of endeavor.
On those occasions when career changes have required
relocations for our family from Illinois to Missouri,
then to Connecticut, Indiana, and California, one
experience was consistent.
Every physician, dentist, insurance agent, real estate
broker, automobile dealer, banker, and others who provided
services to our family praised those who had previously
helped us. In some cases, different services were required.
There were needs for new medicines, replacement fillings,
different property and health coverages, modifications
of financial services, and on and on.
In no case was the previous provider ridiculed or
attacked. So what gives candidates the right to be
cruel and vicious?
The answer is public silence, interpreted as acceptance
by abusive politicians, complemented by applauding
masses rallying around the “wrestling-mania culture” that
cheers the verbal violence and screams for even more
superficial personal attacks. This provides little
substance, but appears to be legitimate and important
by raising the meaningless noise levels to a counter-productive
One of my advisors reminded me that the problem of “uncivil
elections” involves the entire political process,
from political commentary on TV and radio, to public
relations firms that run campaigns, to the major political
parties themselves. He mentioned that seemingly everyone
is caught up in “put down politics.”
The solution lies with the public as much as with
the politicians, i.e., the public, too, should act
with integrity (by favoring positive campaigning over
negative campaigning) when participating in the political
What might candidates do to change this drift away
from being civil, meaning being both courteous and
polite? My recommendation is that electioneering adults,
who want our support, take the time to live by the
attributes of integrity.
Children as young as 8 understand how to behave appropriately.
Last April, children from 8 to 17 from the Boys and
Girls Clubs of Monterey County, California, sat with
me in several age groupings, and described what the
eight attributes of integrity meant to them.
They spoke with conviction that everyone should be
kind, not cruel or sarcastic; that individuals should
be thoughtful, not judgmental; patient, not rude, and
willing to allow others to finish their thoughts. These
young people reminded us that we should work hard to
be helpful, not harmful, remembering that we are, all
of us, more alike than different. One 8-year-old girl
defined character as “what people do when no
one is watching.”
Children know what integrity-centered behaviors are.
They look to adults to model them, including those
seeking elective offices.
James F. Bracher is president of the Bracher Center
for Integrity in Leadership in Monterey, Calif.
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