New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood up last week and delivered a moving, bracingly honest speech to explain why he removed four Confederate monuments from his city.
You elected me to do the right thing, and this is what it looks like, Landrieu told the crowd gathered at New Orleansformer city hall. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.
While it was remarkable to see a Southern politician speaking boldly and clearly about race in the face of death threats and protests it was perhaps even more notable to see a leader publicly demonstrating the character of his convictions. Landrieus speech went viral.
As the country grows ever more cynical, divided and partisan, were not used to honesty and courage from our leaders. Seeing a politician stand up for what he or she believes is the right thing is increasingly rare.
Political discourse and civic life has so devolved in 2017 that a man charged with physical assault, Republican Greg Gianforte, waselected to Congress Thursday in Montana with the backing and full support of his party. Just the day before, Gianforte, a self-made tech millionaire, wrapped his hands around the neck of a reporter, threw him to the ground, and repeatedly punched him for asking a question.
Comparing a longtime politician in Louisiana (Landrieu comes from a political family and is a former lieutenant governor) to an upstart businessman-cum-politician may seem like a stretch. But these two men make a neat case study on the state of ethics and integrity in 2017.
These days the public no longer expects leaders to do whats right. Weve grown accustomed to name-calling and carefully crafted milquetoast middle-of-the-road statements. Were used to lying, and we expect leaders to put party and their own careers before all else.
Norms have shifted, said Gautam Mukunda, the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter and a professor at Harvard Business School. We expect leaders to be bad, and people live up to what you expect of them. Weve created a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad behavior and it is profound.
To many Americans, politics is either a massive conspiracy, a House of Cards dystopia, or a playground for craven buffoons, a la Veep. We are no longer surprised as we witness leaders live up to these expectations, lying about meeting with foreign agents, changing their stories, and blaming everyone but themselves when things go wrong.
You could see footprints of our lower standards all over the Gianforte incident. Instead of apologizing for his naked act of aggression, Gianforte initially released a statement blaming the reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian. Its unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ, the statement read.
Worse, the statement was false. It claimed Jacobs shoved the microphone in Gianfortes face and refused to lower it after being asked, butaudio and witness accounts from a Fox News crew refuted the claims.
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gamely admitted what Gianforte did was wrong, and called on him to apologize, but he also said would support his election if thats what the people of Montana wanted.
Of course, we cant actually know what the people in Montana thought of the assault. A majority of voters cast their ballots before the body-slam.
Its easy to imagine a different politician simply stepping out of the race in the face of such an incident. Remember when Howard Dean appeared to screamin one speech and it doomed his entire bid for the presidential nomination?
Some conservative pundits tried to spin the assault this week as a good thing: Gianforte, the manly and studly candidate, threw the 125-pound wet dishrag reporter from The Guardian to the ground, Rush Limbaugh said of the incident, according to an online transcript of his show posted on his website. Laura Ingraham, while gamely allowing that politicians should stay cool in such situations, also tried to cast Jacobs as wimpy for not fighting back. What would most Montana men do if body slammed for no reason by another man? she asked in a tweet.
As is too often the case in 2017, partisanship blinded us from even distinguishing right from wrong. The increasing divide between right and left and the intensely personal way each side attacks the other means that even ethics are now partisan. Republicans and Democrats call each other bad or evil, and there is often no higher playing field where everyone agrees to nonpartisan standards and values (dont hit people, dont lie, etc.).
I dont think Obama was perfect, but its hard to imagine more of a straight-arrow person. Not a hint of scandal, Mukunda said. Yet somehow half of America just didnt it see it that way. People who disagree with his politics wont typically acknowledge that he acted with respect for the office. You dont hear a lot of that, Mukunda said.
Yet at the same time, people are hungry for heroes men and women with humility who will stand up for whats right. When former acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce President Donald Trumps travel ban because she believed it was unconstitutional, many people found it thrilling. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticizes the Trump administration for its failings, hes lauded.
Indeed, we need people like this to set examples, Mukunda says. The extent that we have culturally deprived people of that is troubling.
Its also highly dysfunctional. Integrity is the bedrock of a properly functioning organization, Joseph Badaracco told HuffPost recently. Badaracco has been teaching an introductory course in ethics, leadership and accountability to Harvard Business School students for the past decade. He defines integrity as a consistency between what you believe, say and do. It all hangs together, he said.
Theres a way in which integrity shouldnt be newsworthy we assume it, rely on it and count on it, Badaracco said. Its not exactly like obeying the laws of gravity, but we ought to be able to assume its there.
The ability to know whats right and follow through on it with conviction isnt something Badaracco believes can really be taught to people by the time they reach Harvard Business School.
We dont teach people how to have integrity. Or even teach the importance of it, he says. If someone doesnt understand that, they have a deficiency in their education or development and we cant remedy that.
Badaracco says his focus is on making hard decisions. The grey areas. Not right versus wrong where a person with integrity will know whats right, he explains. But right versus right where its not really clear.
But civil discourse has devolved from this graduate-school-level thinking. Americans elected Trump, a man whose most original thinking seems to come through in his creative penchant for name-calling. Many mistook Trumps plainspoken manner for authenticity, and perhaps conflated this with honesty and integrity.
These are not the same things.