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 Orleans’ former 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. Landrieu’s speech went viral.
As the country grows ever more cynical, divided and partisan, we’re 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, was elected 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 what’s right. We’ve grown accustomed to name-calling and carefully crafted milquetoast middle-of-the-road statements. We’re 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. We’ve 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. “It’s 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 Gianforte’s face and refused to lower it after being asked, but audio 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 that’s what the people of Montana wanted.
Of course, we can’t actually know what the people in Montana thought of the assault. A majority of voters cast their ballots before the body-slam.
It’s 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 scream in 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 (don’t hit people, don’t lie, etc.).
“I don’t think Obama was perfect, but it’s hard to imagine more of a straight-arrow person. Not a hint of scandal,” Mukunda said. Yet somehow half of America just didn’t it see it that way. People who disagree with his politics won’t typically acknowledge that he acted with respect for the office. “You don’t 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 what’s right. When former acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce President Donald Trump’s 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, he’s lauded.
Indeed, we need people like this to set examples, Mukunda says. “The extent that we have culturally deprived people of that is troubling.”
It’s 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.
“There’s a way in which integrity shouldn’t be newsworthy ― we assume it, rely on it and count on it,” Badaracco said. “It’s not exactly like obeying the laws of gravity, but we ought to be able to assume it’s there.”
The ability to know what’s right and follow through on it with conviction isn’t something Badaracco believes can really be taught to people by the time they reach Harvard Business School.
“We don’t teach people how to have integrity. Or even teach the importance of it,” he says. “If someone doesn’t understand that, they have a deficiency in their education or development and we can’t 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 what’s right,” he explains. “But right versus right where it’s 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 Trump’s plainspoken manner for authenticity, and perhaps conflated this with honesty and integrity.
These are not the same things.