Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Quardricos Bernard Driskell

Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell, is a federal lobbyist and an adjunct professor of legislative politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. @q_driskell4

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Civility, character and community are ethical standards that should guide political communication. These are derived from people’s personal narratives within social, cultural historical contexts. These guiding principles are the critical appropriation and embodiment of traditions that have shaped the character and shared meaning of a people. Thus, political and all communication should be grounded in our own narratives.  People do not emerge from a historical vacuum, but arise from particular traditions. Thus, we are to speak authoritatively, yet compassionately and act responsibly with the aim of serving the collective good. Therefore, it is our character informed by the wisdom, habits, and practices of a person’s particular tradition that informs the way we speak politically and behave ethically.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Who am I? What do I want? What do I propose to do and become? I am more interested in answering the questions of identity and purpose in respect to how political communicators behave ethically and perceive their own quests for meaning in relation to the demands of the other, which raises germinal questions of recognition, respect, and reverence as well as questions of courage, justice, and compassion. Who a person is, more often than not dictate their behavior. The American public intellectual James Baldwin once wrote, “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” Thus, if you know who you are and your purpose - a healthy sense of self, which is the basis upon which one, comes to understand one's own distinctive potential and self-worth, but without a sense of self, people often drift aimlessly through life without a true understanding of their place in existence.  Consequently, they fall victim to various persuasions, but those who behave and communicate ethically, their actions and practices will have a definitive impact on how he or she responds to the ‘other’ with sincerity and truthfulness. It is also the key unifying virtue in the people’s response to dehumanizing actions and other forces that work against human development and community. 

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Religion and politics: two topics you are not supposed to discuss in public life. Yet, if one surfs cable television or navigates YouTube and social media, these windows into our public life quickly showcase politicians, mechanics and grade-school teachers all weighing in on the topic with great passion and reflective commonsense smarts. However, many are not stellar examples of ethical political communication. I mention religion and politics, as I am situated between both of these subjects – both deeply personal and intimate and when discussed, either independent of each other or together emotions and passions tend to heighten. Either can also become extraneous or a continued cause of conflict, rather than a source of healing, peace and reconciliation. Religion and politics are central to many of the day's biggest news stories, and at a time where ethics and leadership are needed, there is an opportunity to chart a new course for the challenges and complexities in our society - improving public understanding of the various challenges requires skill, art and an ethical, yet civil way of communicating. Ethical communication is a courageous conversation that starts with civility and honesty.

More examples: I can recall back in 2008, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defended then Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), his rival for the presidency, in the face of constituents spouting racist conspiracies about the then-senator from Illinois. “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” a woman said to McCain at a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota in October of that year. McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] a citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].” We need more examples and acts of courage and civility that Sen. McCain displayed during that townhall.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

How do you communicate to lawmakers about a legislation, policy etc. that runs contrary to your personal philosophical and ideological principle but professionally it is your job?  I have had to face this challenge twice, as I certain others in my career have as well - a profession that requires communicating, both written and verbally.

From the beginning, I was aware that I could face this challenge. I communicate to the US Congress and other aspects of US government in order to pressure them into specific public policy actions; and as a result had to remind myself of what I knew initially before entering the profession. Though my dilemma and disagreement was not of great magnitude, I still faced an ethical dilemma. Do I hold fast to my philosophical and political beliefs, or do I simply “do my job” and communicate effectively on legislation, politics, and policy and with people whom I disagree?

This form of political communication is advocacy; lobbying guaranteed by Constitution and from our participatory democracy. Thus, in that respect, I did my job and lobbied on behalf of a position I personally disagreed.  Because fundamentally, I knew before applying and accepting the offer of my position there would be issues that I did not always agree and that I would have to communicate and lobby on - and that is why I decided to silence my own beliefs and perform well in my chosen career. It was not out of political practicality or fear of losing my job, but it was a possible dilemma I knew could happen and I decided to take such risk when I entered the profession.  

The lesson: If one is going to enter into the profession of any form of political communication, make yourself aware of the possible risks, threats and challenges. Who you are in this world is largely the result of decisions you have made in the past and have to make in the future. Learn how to make the right choices for your future in order to overcome life’s greatest and most worthy ethical challenges. As aforementioned, the ethical challenge while not great, forced me to grapple with questions I only explored theoretically, but fortuitously, for me these are questioned I was about to ponder previously before choosing to become a lobbyist.   Design a powerful future based on possibility rather than circumstance especially in the world of political communication.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Ethics is central to leadership, and leaders help to establish and reinforce organizational or institutional values. Most people are guilty of some form of unethical behavior throughout their lifetime myself included. Nobody thinks that this is a perfect world with perfect people. Therefore, we need good people who are willing to engage and to commit themselves to making it better. Anybody who comes to an institution or to the field of political communication bears a special responsibility to try to do that. 

America has deeper issues than partisan political divides. Its people suffer from a lack of faith in leaders and institutions such media, business and politics. Moreover, this divide, in many ways stems from our lack of ability to empathize. Start with empathy. You may not agree with a person’s perspective on any issue or their worldview, but at least you will understand the origin of their perspective, or the why. Moreover, I’ve discovered that understanding why a person takes the positions they do, or believes the way they do helps me to communicate graciously with them even though I may never agree. There is something sacred about understanding a person’s particular traditions, which informs their beliefs that makes disagreements manageable.

Political communication professionals must for the sake of our republic, bridge the partisan, racial and extremist gaps by spending some time walking in the shoes of the rhetorical ‘them’ – the American people, as a whole, inclusive of more than their personal constituencies. Mirrored advocacy and representation of specific opinions and sentiments gleaned from constituents perhaps is portion of the mandate for your future work; but it must move beyond that, in order to aid our society in growth, at times we must attenuated our own egotism for the good of the whole. Very simply, to grow, to learn what it means to communicate in the political world, you have to leave your comfort zone, confront fears and take risks. Learn how to overcome fear and step outside of what has become comfortable and familiar to you.