Sunday, October 10, 1999

Editorial Commentary

Public morality and moral leadership

Americans must rediscover common values


   IN THE WAKE of the Clinton sex scandals and the lingering questions about the juvenile behavior of George W. Bush, Americans continue to struggle with the role and importance of personal character and morality in public life. Despite our prosperity, declining rates of crime and relative world peace, there is a general uneasiness about the deterioration of American culture. Those on both the left and the right lament the drift away from traditional values.

    The first presidential candidate I ever met was Jimmy Carter. I was a student in 1976 at Wake Forest University. Having endured the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War, I was captivated by the message of this largely unknown candidate for the presidency. When Carter spoke, it was a message of hope, faith and confidence in the American people.

    His speech that evening was structured around several rhetorical questions. Can our government be as honest, decent, open, fair and compassionate as the American people? Can our government be competent? Can our government in Washington represent accurately what the American people are or what we ought to be? And he concluded by asking, "Why not the best?"

    I came to be disappointed in his presidency, but not in the man. Nearly a decade ago, I was fortunate to meet President Carter once again and to have several moments of private conversation. I left the event that evening with a sense of admiration, pride and appreciation for his service. Although perhaps disappointed in his performance as president, I was never embarrassed.

    For me, the Clinton presidency is one of disappointment and embarrassment. However, I am equally disappointed and embarrassed by my fellow American citizens. What is the relationship between constitutional authority and public morality?

    The notion of authority is a central concept in social and political thought. There are many forms of authority. But all forms of authority are based upon the structure of the social relationship between an individual and the state. The role of authority in government is not only to uphold moral, ethical and intellectual standards, but also to guarantee social and political freedom, and to act as a barrier against centralized, arbitrary and despotic power. We use authority to protect our rights, to provide order and security, to manage conflict and to distribute the benefits and burdens of society.

    The authority of American government originates from the Constitution. The moral authority of government originates from the collective beliefs, attitudes and values of the citizens. Moral authority consists of the felt obligations and duties derived from shared community values, ideas and ideals. From a democratic perspective, the very nature of authority must be moral in form and content. Otherwise, social violence, chaos and coercion will be the norm. Moral authority rests on voluntary consent. Democracy, by definition, cannot exist without values.

    And political values are the distillation of principles based upon public values.

    As we approach the new millennium, what would a survey of our social and political landscape reveal? In the aftermath of winning the Cold War, the political climate became one of public distrust and cynicism. Many Americans have lost confidence in their government and trust in elected officials and politicians. Government and the political process are often viewed as dominated by special interests rather than notions of the "common good" for all Americans. Citizens feel caught between the crossfire of self-interested politicians, special-interest groups and large corporations.

    There was a time in America when citizens understood the terms of their relationship with government and with each other based upon trust. Our relationship with fellow citizens was based on mutual respect, honesty and social responsibility. Our relationship with government was based on trust, too. It meant that the common good would prevail. Government, in all its actions, would be fair and just, and would operate in the interests of all citizens. Today, it appears that we no longer trust government, corporations or even each other. For too many Americans, our social contract has become null and void.

    A government is only as good, decent and moral as its citizens. Individual integrity, responsibility and accountability are the best check on government abuse. An individual's moral judgments are dependent upon the administration of moral dignity and action.

    The collective social values of the citizens become the conditions necessary for the existence of political authority. The government that encompasses and expresses our collective values ensures the respect and voluntary compliance of all citizens. Political authority rests on the assumption that it exists to promote the good of those who accept it, that the common good will prevail, not the self-interests of the those in authority or by the exercise of force.

    The challenge is clear. As a nation, our greatest threat is internal, not external. We must stem the growing tide toward political cynicism and despair.

    First, we must find common themes and values that transcend our ever-deepening cultural differences. We must all be able to identify, articulate and appreciate the core values of America. We need to reaffirm our national civic values -- the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- that bring us together as a people. The ideals of freedom, equality, democracy and justice provide the basis for building community and trust in America today.

    Second, civic responsibility, accountability and initiative should once again become a keystone of social life. Moral discipline means using social norms, rules, customs and laws to develop moral reasoning, self-control and a generalized respect for others. Such an approach to social life will help citizens recognize the values behind the laws, why laws are needed, and help increase the feeling of moral obligation to respect government institutions.

    Finally, of course, we desperately need moral leadership in the future, not defined by a specific set of standards or dogma, but clearly recognized by the public as possessing the moral authority of governing.

    In short, in order to elect better leaders we must become better citizens, friends and neighbors. A genuinely moral nation elects moral leaders.


    ROBERT E. DENTON W. Thomas Rice chair and director of the Corps of Cadets Center for Leader Development at Virginia Tech.

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