During my tenure at Intersections, one of the programs we developed centered around the relationship between “power” and “values.” The core question: for individuals and organizations in positions of influence, what value systems inform their decision-making process? Our efforts did not focus on those who had already amassed wealth or status—Bill Gates, George Soros, the Koch brothers—but rather, we concerned ourselves with “ordinary folk” and organizations both large and small. We all have power; how we use it, and the ethical framework that guides our decision-making offers revealing insights into who we are and what we do.
Our program pre-dated the era of the Trump administration, but it would have been an interesting exercise to raise personal ethical conundrums against policy decisions in the White House. Indeed, the current administration has so turned “political norms” on its head, that it is a challenging exercise to view recent actions through this question. Unfortunately, the answer seems elusive.
The Ping-Pong Presidency seems to shift strategies with ease and so it is difficult to determine the ethical anchors that guide decision-making. Holding up decisions made in Washington to the mirror of our own personal choices can offer a helpful lens on determining the motivation behind any given initiative. This is no small matter since the President of the United States wields immeasurable power and if values are ill-defined or altogether lacking, the historic checks and balances that have made this country safe and secure for so many (though not all) are in jeopardy.
In an OpEd in the New York Times on September 14, former Vice President Joe Biden reminded us that our “democratic values” are central to domestic wellbeing and to America’s place in the world. Biden says, “America’s ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example…Reclaiming our values starts with standing up for them at home — inclusivity, tolerance, diversity, respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. If these are the democratic principles we wish to see around the world, America must be the first to model them.
“You cannot define Americans by what they look like, where they come from, whom they love or how they worship. Only our democratic values define us. And if we lose sight of this in our conduct at home or abroad, we jeopardize the respect that has made the United States the greatest nation on earth.”
Whether it is in the current debate over DACA or access to health care or securing our borders or the impact of climate change on poor and working-class people, we need to hold our government leaders accountable by first asking, whenever a new initiative is announced: What is the values-based framework upon which this policy is based? And, for each of us, we must acknowledge our own personal power and ask a similar question as we engage one another each day: What is the ethical basis upon which I undertake any given action? As we honestly seek answers to these questions, we can better assess the moral framework of our society and our individual lives.