Why political virtue matters in the voting booth

When Americans step into the voting booth 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 weigh other considerations as well - party label, ideology, stands on issues of importance, likability. But for most of us, it's very important 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 the broader community.

There is nothing old-fashioned 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. It suffers when our politicians are incapable of doing so.

Of course, the Founders understood human nature. They anticipated that no one could be so virtuous as to be entrusted with unlimited power. That's why they developed a constitutional system of checks and balances aimed at restraining the power of any one person or, indeed, any single 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 expressed hope "that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.... 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, 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.

The Founders' belief that Americans possess sufficient virtue for self-government is daily tested by the dark arts of modern politicking: the relentless "spinning" of the facts by political operators; the slick television advertising that misleads without actually lying; the pandering candidate appeals that amount to little more than "what you want is good for everyone."

Also today there are so many pressures that make it difficult for members of Congress and other political leaders to step back and disentangle what is best for the country from their more personal preoccupations: the ceaseless demand to raise funds for increasingly expensive campaigns; 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 this is what the Founders expected from the generations to follow them: that the American people would not only choose leaders of wisdom and virtue, but also would themselves possess the intelligence and virtue to do so. Let us hope we never prove them wrong.

Lee H. Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. He is also vice chair of the 9/11 commission.

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