Principles or principals?


Steve Young, 3/14/08 • Iran is electing members of a new parliament today, March 14. But it is not exactly a free and open election. The Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics and jurists created by the constitution to protect the regime from ideological deviation, disqualified some 1,700 potential candidates.

Only those with the right attitude and moral rectitude were permitted to run for office. Those prevented from running were, from the perspective of the Guardian Council, insufficiently loyal to Islam or the Islamic revolution that established Iran’s current form of government.

Loyalty to the cause – to the faith – is the precondition for holding political power in Iran.

Sound familiar?

Just recently in Minnesota, six Republican members of the House of Representatives were punished for not being sufficiently loyal to the Republican Party’s principle of no new taxes.

Several of them lost leadership positions in their Party’s caucus; three were denied endorsement for re-election by their local Party conventions.

I don’t want to blame only the Republicans for acting in a sectarian way while holding public office. I am sure the corruption of ideology is at work among Democrats as it is among Republicans.

My problem is that such politics of ideological conformity are kind of un-American.

Our Republic was founded on the principle, as I read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, that public office is a public trust. The electorate is the Principal to whom the elected agent is to serve. No priest, no Pope, no guru, no billionaire, no special interest is to be Principal to a faithful public servant.

He or she is to use his or her best judgment to do what is right for the common good.

John F. Kennedy won credibility with his book Profiles in Courage, which told the stories of elected officials who followed their conscience rather than their constituents. But they did so because they believed that the urgings of their consciences were better indicators of the public good than passing fancies of the madding crowd.

The standard for excellence in public office is consideration of the public good, not blind loyalty to a boss or a principle taken to extremes.

Principles need to be interpreted to suit the times and the occasion. That process is not sure or simple and people often disagree on how to implement an abstract ideal.

Punishing those who are not loyal to one school of interpretation does not nourish a high quality civic culture and sets us all up for fragmentation, bitterness, and the most demeaning of power squabbles.