The mention of ethics in political campaigns usually draws some snickers and a comment that equates the terms with an oxymoron. It’s understandable.
Political campaigns are known for their rough and tumble, dirty tricks, and in general, an attitude that the consequence of election failure is worse than the consequence of getting caught for unethical behavior—especially if that unethical behavior won’t likely lead to jail time. In an era where an ethics charge has become a commonplace political weapon, the attitude seems to be to throw caution to the wind.
Candidates themselves are not as likely as other actors to commit ethical violations. Their reputation is literally on the line (of the ballot), and the consequences of unethical behavior are thus more frequently top of mind. Most of their transgressions revolve around playing fast and loose with campaign rhetoric, rather than outright dishonest, unethical behavior.
Campaign management and staff are another matter. The nature of campaigns is that they tend to materialize out of nowhere overnight, and when it’s over, they disappear just as quickly. Aside from the financial disclosure requirements that exist, there is little public visibility, much less record.
Staffers at the helm of a political campaign are under tremendous pressure to get results. As Vince Lombardi famously put it, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The career incentives for those who want to run campaigns or get jobs at the end of a campaign can quickly dissolve into the ends justifying the means.
Searching for a standard
Is there room for ethics in campaigning that goes beyond anything-goes so long as it is a millimeter inside what the law allows? There is, but so far there hasn’t been a systematic effort to codify it. And since there isn’t a Hippocratic Oath to guide all campaign staff, the best place to start is with the individual.
Focus on controlling your conduct as opposed to trying to control the conduct of others. As this attitude spreads via peer-to-peer interaction, a steady, determined and persistent social network of self-interest just might, over time, have a salutary effect on political campaign ethics.
How about self-interest?
What are the self-interest incentives worth thinking about and then sharing? First, if you have a conscience and like to sleep at night, be as ethical in a political campaign as you are in life. A job in a relatively brief campaign isn’t an excuse to take a vacation from your own ethical standards.
Second, think of the campaign as more than getting someone elected, but as your own campaign for self-improvement, a good reputation and career advancement. If you have “skin in the game” then the decisions you make in a given campaign will be made with the candidate and yourself in mind. In short, you’re less likely to be someone else’s patsy.
Third, when the inevitable ethical dilemmas arise, take a deep breath and share the dilemma with someone. Talk it through. Gauge their reaction. If you cannot make a totally logical, left-brain decision, at least get another person’s perspective on how to make an emotionally-intelligent decision.
And always remember, even though campaigns are a high-intensity, often stressful environment, there is nothing life or death in a campaign decision that requires a split-second, ethical judgment, so long as either choice you’re faced with is legal.
Know the rules
Make sure you know the laws, rules and regulations for your race. The campaign you are working for is unlikely to have a campaign law orientation, though it probably should. Therefore it’s in your interest to do it yourself for your own protection. This is particularly true if any of your activities involve soliciting, receiving or spending money. And if you are working for an incumbent’s campaign, there are many more rules and regulations governing your conduct that you need to be aware of.
Of course, there is plenty more that we could add to this checklist, but the bottom line is that you should follow your own ethical compass throughout the campaign. Don’t do anything professionally that you wouldn’t do personally just because you happen to be working on a political effort.
Maybe someday the political world will find a way to adopt universal ethical standards and codes of conduct for political campaigns. But until that happens, you are on your own.
M. Robert Carr is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University. A former nine-term congressman from the state of Michigan, Carr currently is a senior advisor at Transnational Strategy Group.