Questioning the ethics of political systems—particularly the democratic system—is nothing new. Criticism of democracy dates back about 2500 years to two of the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy. Both Socrates and his student Plato hated democracy because of its potential for corruption at the highest levels of leadership. Socrates specifically lamented the right to vote given to all citizens whether or not they were informed and educated about the issues on which they were voting.
Plato’s concerns lied more with leadership. Not only did he worry about corruption, he did not like the fact that anyone—qualified or not—could be elected to a leadership role. These are important matters of political ethics that hold true even today. Think of these concerns in the context of our representative democracy here in the United States; they are still valid.
In the current political system of the United States there are three key groups of people who play vital roles in the election and governing process. They are the leaders, the media, and the people. Each of these groups have ethical responsibilities to each other and to the democratic process as a whole.
The leaders include those who are elected to office, those appointed to positions by elected officials, and those who are running for elected office—candidates. These men and women have a long list of ethical obligations, not the least of which is honesty. As citizens of a democracy, we not only expect our leaders and potential leaders to be honest, but we must also demand it. For some, getting elected is far more important than being truthful with voters.
Consider New York Congressman-elect George Santos who, during his 2022 campaign, lied about his education, his work history, his mother dying in a tower on 9/11, his grandparents being holocaust survivors, and him being Jewish. He’s Catholic (Ashford).
The media are various digital, broadcast, and print outlets that reach people en masse. This includes, but is not limited to news organizations like CNN, FOX News, and the New York Times. Each use multiple platforms to reach their audience. One of the major responsibilities of the news media is to serve as watchdogs of the political system. Journalists are expected to objectively, fairly, and truthfully investigate and report on the actions of the leaders referenced above.
Sadly, in recent decades the new media has become politicized as cable networks now support particular agendas of the political left or right. In a somewhat recent turn of events, though, CNN under its new leadership has made a shift to the political center (Helmore). Falling in line with the Associate Press, Reuters, and National Public Radio the cable news network is broadening the landscape of ethical journalistic organizations.
We, the people, are comprised of voters and non-voters. Whether citizens or residents, of voting age or not yet age 18, the people of the United States have ethical responsibilities in the political process. The first is voting. Those citizens ages 18 and up have an obligation as part of our social contract to be part of the electoral process. Leaders are elected to represent the people; therefore, those same people must vote for the leaders who represent their interests.
Another ethical obligation the people have is to hold leadership accountable. Everyone living in the United States is affected by the actions taken and decisions made by government officials. As a result, we must keep those leaders in check by constantly making them aware of the quality of their work and the ethics of their actions.
Ashford, Grace and Michael Gold. “Who Is Rep.-Elect George Santos? His Résumé May Be Largely Fiction.” The New York Times. nytimes.com. 19 December 2022.
Helmore, Edward. “Why CNN Is Shifting Tenor from Partisanship News to a Political Center.” The Guardian. theguardian.com. 21 January 2022.