Principles and Politics

By Louis Avallone

My 7th grade teacher at St. Joseph’s School, Ms. Belanger, taught us an easy way to remember how to spell “principle” and I’ve never forgotten it. Actually, she taught me how to spell “principle” by distinguishing it from “principal,” with who’s spelling of “principle” is often confused (because both words sound alike, of course).

So as journalists and pundits alike were reporting the “recall” election victory of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last week, as a testament to the politics of principles, I couldn’t help be reminded of the importance of “principle”, but only by distinguishing it from “politics,” with which it is often confused (because both can look alike these days).

Of course, yes, Governor Walker’s survival of his recall election does show that “politicians can win on principles,” as Senator Rand Paul commented. However, “principles” and “politics” may not even belong in the same sentence.

Here’s what I mean: A “principle” is defined as “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” By contrast, “politics” is often considered “based on or motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives.”

So, when Governor Walker sought to curb public unions in his state (which led, ultimately, to his recall election), was he being “principled” or “political”? After threats against his life, harassment of his family, and countless protests against him, as well as enduring baseless rumors to embarrass him, not to mention the nearly 1,000,000 Wisconsin voters who signed a recall petition to remove him from office – which was almost 25% of the total votes cast in the last election for governor – was he being “principled” or “political” to continue his efforts in making Wisconsin state government fiscally sound? He stayed the course, and given the public opposition to his efforts, his intentions seem hardly rooted in the “self-serving objectives” of politics, but more rooted in “principles.”

Similarly, some folks might ask if President Obama is “playing politics” or standing on principles, regarding a number of issues this election year. While on the campaign trail last week, for example, he urged Congress to stop interest rates on student loans from doubling at the end of June. The Republicans say he is playing politics and want him to come back to Washington, as bipartisan proposals have already been submitted to him to pay the estimated $6 billion needed to address the student loan issue.

Others question if Obama is playing politics with the bin Laden anniversary, even though Obama still criticizes many of our nation’s policies that made bin Laden’s demise possible. Senator McCain said “Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad.”

Then others wonder if Obama is playing politics with tax reform by hyping the “Buffet rule,” which could be considered re-election politics to simply pit the 99 percent against the one percent.

Or if he’s playing politics on gay marriage with his constantly evolving view? Or is he playing politics mandating that Catholic institutions distribute contraceptives, even when doing so infringes on the Constitutional freedom of religion? Is it playing politics with high gas prices by saying we can’t drill our way to lower gas prices, but then claiming that, under his administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years?

Or, is Obama simply like any other politician in an election year, following the conventional wisdom of politics by promising everything to everybody? Perhaps it is no different today, as it was in 64 B.C., when Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Cicero received this campaign advice from his brother: “Candidates should say whatever the crowd of the day wants to hear. After the election, you can explain to everyone that you would love to help them, but unfortunately circumstances beyond your control have intervened.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. You see, by contrast, principle-driven leaders are not concerned with over-promising or, put another way, in fooling some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time (to borrow from the words of Abraham Lincoln). They do not “play politics” with the issues, whether in an elected office, or as a leader in their company, or around the kitchen table as part of a family – they act out of principle, or a set of core values that translate into guiding principles for everything that they do.

For the “politically-driven” leader, however, he or she is working from a set of core values that are rooted in personal needs, rather than organizational ones, where preservation of power, and control over others, to protect that power, is paramount. For the “politically-driven” leader, regular folks cannot be trusted, and the world must simply be divided into allies and enemies.

Isn’t that the mood of Washington, these days? From religion to gender, to race and class envy, our nation has been dangerously divided into allies and enemies, perhaps more than ever before, by the leaders who are more “politically-driven” than “principle-driven”; promising everything to everyone.

Yes, all politicians pander for support. But in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “if you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” You see, Governor Walker’s recall election serves as a comforting reminder that the voters still “get that.” Yes, principles really do still matter – and that’s no matter how you spell it.

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