By Aidan Kluger
On a calm Tuesday evening, just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I found myself standing in the hallowed chambers of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing upon the celebrated savior of our Union. Poised atop his throne, he looked out onto the capital with a critical, determined expression. He held a certain power, acquired not by overbearing might, but by something else—some other virtue that I couldn’t quite yet place. Alas, there he was, wise and enduring: “Honest Abe.”
It’s a curious epithet to apply to a leader. Conquer the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and India, and you get the word “great” attached to your name. Terrify enough people in your regime, you might even earn “terrible!” But in the United States, we attach the trait “honest” to one of our most beloved forefathers—a telling indication that Americans, whether consciously aware of it or not, place significant value on honesty and integrity in sustaining our democratic polity. According to one 2019 Pew Research report, 91% of Americans responded that it is essential for political leaders to be honest and ethical. “Honesty” was the favorite quality out of nine offered in the survey, beating out “works well under pressure” and “able to work out compromises.” Moreover, the importance of honesty transcended party lines; both Democrats and Republicans ranked it as the most sought-after trait.
It makes sense that honesty would be considered such an important quality in a representative democracy such as ours. When we elect leaders to represent us, we abdicate some of our direct power, trusting that our elected officials will not act in self-interest, but instead be accountable and transparent in representing the interests of the people. Such leadership invariably depends on honesty (or, at the very least, the appearance of it).
The problem is that trustworthy leadership has become a vain hope for most Americans. Despite the clear enthusiasm for political integrity, a 2015 report found that only 8% of Americans think that the term “honest” suitably describes our elected officials. On top of that, three-quarters of Americans believe that elected officials put their own interests before that of their constituents. And while it is true that politicians typically rank poorly in such ethical contests, trust in our elected officials has declined to the lowest levels in over half a century. Among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 30th on the question of trust in government. Partisan gridlock and institutional failure to handle crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the image of an inefficient government spearheaded by corrupt, self-interested politicians.
In addition to government inadequacy, our democratic political culture predisposes us to be skeptical towards the government. While some organic skepticism is healthy for a democracy, repeated government failures to be transparent and effective can aggravate that skepticism into outright mistrust, and in situations where government action is imperative, this mistrust can stand as a dangerous obstacle. Consider, for instance, civilian resistance to COVID-19-related safety precautions. The inability of the federal government to clearly communicate uniform safety protocols or definitive durations of economic lockdowns has engendered a strong reaction by some members of the American public who were already wary of government overreach. These citizens have responded by becoming staunchly resistant to anything they suspect of infringing on individual freedom; even the issue of wearing masks in public has become fraught with political tension.
In other words, there is a dilemma lodged deep within the American psyche: as a people, we ideally want honesty, but we have a difficult time placing trust in our leaders. Not to mention, our standards for honest government have stooped so low that we no longer even expect it from our elected officials. This can lead to dangerous consequences; public distrust causes citizens to seek alternative political options outside of the mainstream, believing that the mainstream has become corrupted by a culture of secrecy and cronyism. Citizens may find these political alternatives in the form of populist movements on the far-right and far-left, both of which promise to return government power back to “the people.” All of this causes the political center to crumble as it loses support, and thus its own legitimacy. This then creates a cyclical process where public discourse becomes increasingly divisive, while national leaders lose their authority, and thus, the public’s trust in them to keep the country together. Ending the cycle means reestablishing our democratic and political integrity. The question then becomes: how do we restore this integrity?
One direct approach is to bolster government oversight and ethics. Walter Shaub, who served as the Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) from 2013 until his resignation in 2017, proposed 13 policy recommendations to strengthen government ethics in Washington. The recommendations include the authorization of regular communication between Congress and the OGE, strengthening the ability of ethics officials to collect records, and even granting the OGE power to “collect and post on its website written plans for how candidates would prepare for a Presidential transition and resolve their conflicts of interest.” Shaub’s reforms would aim not only to strengthen ethics laws, but ensure against the further damaging of ethical norms, an issue over which he clashed frequently with the outgoing administration. The proposal has received notable attention from organizations like the New York Times and the Campaign Legal Center, a political organization advocating for campaign finance policy change. While policy recommendations like Shaub’s have yet to be implemented on a large scale, their potential to improve ethical standards in government remains a viable and important start for keeping government officials more accountable.
Still, some will argue that additional bureaucracy will not be enough to fix the problem, which is why systemic change will also be necessary. Voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and the electoral college have all contributed to a sense that some of our leaders aren’t elected in a legitimate, fair process. President Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election have further undermined trust in the incoming administration, with 52% of Republicans believing Trump rightfully won.
One possible solution is to bypass this partisanship and allow voters to decide on issues directly. On this front, we may take inspiration from Switzerland, who ranks the highest in governmental trust out of all the OECD member nations. By no coincidence, this alpine democracy has more direct referenda than any other developed country. National referenda could be successful for issues like the implementation of universal background checks for firearms purchases; as it stands, the direct lobbying of private interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) to Congress poses a substantial buffer to enacting change that is otherwise widely supported among Americans. Public plebiscites could also help with the passing of progressive policy reforms, which the majority of Americans also support. A dose of direct democracy would actually serve us well; enacting overdue change can kickstart the people’s trust in government once again.
We cling to the nickname “Honest Abe” due to an idealistic longing for a leader—or, to get really hopeful, a government—whose virtue and integrity can transcend our divisions, who leads transparently, and who is ready to return the responsibility of lawmaking back to the people when public opinion demands such an action. While Lincoln’s honesty may be the material of a compelling mythos more so than irrefutable fact, that should not detract from the lesson, the ideal, that “Honest Abe” can offer us today. Our government, and the social contract that underpins it, requires trust. And if we truly wish to solve the ills that plague our country today, then we must honor Lincoln’s legacy by tackling the issue of political integrity head-on by making it a priority in our politics.
Our democracy may very well depend on it.
Title source: “Weeping Lincoln,” Bill Mauldin (1963)