Acting on Values or Compromising Them: What is the Right Thing to Do?
A recent poll from the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) clearly indicates the polarization in America. According to the latest GU Politics Battleground Civility Poll, voters are expressing a higher level of concern over the level of polarization in the country. When asked about political division on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being no division at all and 100 being the edge of civil war), respondents gave a mean score of 71.74, a slight increase to feelings in the previous battleground poll with a mean score of 70.36.
There was a decrease in voters who agree with the statement “I am optimistic about the future because young people are committed to making this country a better place to live for everyone,” with a net decrease of 23%. However, while there was a notable decline in agreement on this statement, there was majority agreement (55%) among voters aged 18-34, signaling that the younger generation still views themselves as agents of change.
The poll also highlighted the extent to which voters have separated themselves from others who are not like them, surrounding themselves with close friends and family that are remarkably similar to themselves. The results include the following findings.
- A majority say that all or most of their friends (60%) “share the same political beliefs” as they do, while only 38% say some or none do.
- A majority of voters say that most of their close friends and family “vote for the same candidates” (55% all/most, 37% some/none) and “are in the same political party” (57% all/most, 40% some/none) as they are.
- The trend holds when looking at other key measures, with voters offering that most of their close friends and family “share the same religious beliefs” (53% all/most, 45% some/none), “are in the same ethnic group” (67% all/most, 32% some/none), and “are in the same economic class” (51% all/most, 47% some/none).
- Except for sharing their economic class, Republicans and Democrats are both more likely than independents to have “a lot” or “some” of their friends fit all these aforementioned criteria than independents.
It appears that voters are looking for someone who can compromise to get things done even if they must compromise their values. Two-thirds of respondents say they were more likely to vote for a candidate willing to compromise with other politicians as opposed to a candidate who consistently fights for values. This answer has remained consistent over more than two years of polling, with at least 65% of respondents selecting the candidate willing to compromise to create change in each poll.
As an ethicist, I find this result somewhat concerning. I know the old saying about the art of politics: Politics is frequently called the “art of compromise,” where those elected by a demographically diverse population meet to develop policies that all constituencies can accept. This requires a give and take to achieve a majority vote and accepting that no one gets everything they want in the final product. Economist Donald Wittman observed, “That is what good politicians do; create coalitions and find acceptable compromises.” Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote, “But compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.
Once we compromise our values, then ethical relativism kicks in and individuals are more likely to deviate away from their values to get things done. I would be OK with this accept that different people have different values so that actions might reflect the majority of those with certain values that are set aside in the name of compromise.
Compromising one’s values can corrupt the ethical value of integrity, which is the basis of ethics in many ways. Ethical people should stand up for what is right regardless of the consequences. It takes courage to act in accordance with your convictions even if it creates problems down the line.
I believe a case in point is Joe Manchin. He blocked passage of the Build Back Better Bill last year when he declared that he couldn’t support the Bill, and that meant Democrats in the Senate didn’t have a majority to get it done. Manchin attributed his lack of support to concerns about rising inflation, the national debt, and the need to fight covid. He clearly acted on his values, which are that inflation must be fought at all levels.
Fast forward to July 2022, and Senator Manchin (D-WV) supported the Bill even though those same concerns exist. The reason for his support now seems to be the climate change provisions in the Bill. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) recently passed provides $369 billion for climate and energy projects, including a tax credit up to $7,500 for electric vehicles (EVs).
The IRA was a surprise to many. After all, on December 19, 2021, Manchin had withdrawn support for IRA’s previous incarnation, Build Back Better (BBB) Act, citing concerns about inflation. On July 14, 2022, he went further, announcing an end to negotiations on even a slimmed-down BBB.
Manchin has been critical of EV subsidies, an important climate priority in both the BBB and the IRA. On April 27, 2022 he said: “There’s a waiting list for E.V.s right now with a fuel price at $4, but they still want us to throw $5,000 or $7,000 or a $12,000 credit to buy an electric vehicle…It makes no sense to me whatsoever…. It’s absolutely ludicrous.”
Manchin’s about face is due to the political realities of compromise. For now, the U.S. Senate (basically Manchin) decides the fate of climate legislation. But after November, the House may not pass such legislation. This means that Manchin may not have climate legislations to work with.
I’m not saying politicians shouldn’t compromise. Nothing would get done unless this happens. However, I am saddened that there is such a diversity of values in the country that we can’t make decisions based on a common set of accepted core values, which was the case going back to the 1950s and earlier but need to depend on politicians to make decisions where they compromise their values.
Don’t we elect our representatives based on whether their values conform to our own? Maybe not, but that’s the problem in today’s highly charged political environment and the divisions in the country on what is right and what is wrong.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 24, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.