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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 immaturity.

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 same nobility.

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 crescendo.

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 process.

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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