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Ethics, integrity, and public life 

In previous columns, I have reflected on the emergence of a “new” political center and the resurgence of democratic engagement in public life that we see all around us as a result of our authoritarian 2016 electoral results. During a recent radio interview, however, a caller reasonably questioned whether, in the face of unprecedented partisan polarization and the previous failures of “centrist” independent candidates, “no labels” movements and the like, this is just wishful thinking.

While my observations are intended to shine a spotlight on the efforts of people like Matthew Dowd, whose Listen to Us organization aims to put “Country before Party” and common interests above personal and partisan ambition, as well as Represent Us, whose members focus specifically on bipartisan electoral and campaign finance reform, what I’m really getting at is a movement centered within the partisan landscape, but not a creature of it.

A new center does not exist in opposition to partisanship, but in opposition to authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic ethics and integrity in public life. It is too soon to tell if our constitutional democracy will survive the authoritarian degradation of Donald Trump’s presidency. What we need to understand is that our institutions, the legitimacy of Congress, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, have never survived on their own. Institutions themselves won’t defeat authoritarianism in the United States; they can only constrain it.

Our capacity to resist the parasitism of authoritarian actors rests ultimately on our commitment to democratic ethics—political equality and personal integrity, both born of mutual respect for our fellow human beings. Democracy is a moral stance; to engage in it requires that we believe in it. That is, we must defeat the contention that individual objectives in public life boil down to self-enrichment or the sort of naked and pathological selfishness exhibited by the Trump family and its surrogates. The national disgrace that we are subjected to on a near daily basis, their lack of basic ethical connection to other human beings, must be countered through the ways that we as democratic citizens organize our lives.

Integrity is honesty, mediated through mutual respect. By that, I mean a person could be honest, say by promising to deregulate certain industries to save jobs linked to that industry, and then follow through on that promise once elected. However, if that person also knows that economic decline in that industry is primarily caused by other factors, say technology, that person would lack integrity for seeking a solution that exploits the ignorance and fears of his supporters, rather than addressing the true nature of the problem. The level of dishonesty and lack of integrity exhibited by this administration is testing us all, but we have it within ourselves to make it better.

Our democratic ethics reflect not just one form of social life among other workable forms but, as the philosopher Hilary Putnam put it, “the precondition for the full application of intelligence to the solution of social problems.” It’s what distinguishes democracy and civilized society from the regimes of our barbarous ancestors.

A robust, local example of how we are applying intelligence to social problems with integrity is the recently released report Vital Signs-Understanding San Luis Obispo County, by the ACTION for Healthy Communities project, a consortium of private and public health, education, environmental, and other service organizations. This report (which can be downloaded for free at includes a comprehensive representative survey of SLO County adults, along with a massive compilation of accurate economic, health, environmental, and demographic information that community service providers use to guide decision-making about the design and management of programs.

The data reveal both strengths and weaknesses in our community: Nearly 90 percent of respondents are covered by health insurance, 81 percent report feeling “very safe” in their neighborhoods, nearly two-thirds of households volunteer or give to charities, and our high school graduation rates are higher than the state average. However, our drug and child abuse rates are also higher, only half (52 percent) of residents get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, and more than one in 10 residents have not been able to afford food for basic needs.

With this data, we have precise measures of our challenges and opportunities and can use this information to develop effective problem solving strategies. You should check it out. This crucial project reflects what is possible when individuals commit to a robust public life with integrity and honesty, and work together to improve it. This is what democratic ethics looks like.

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through [email protected] or send a letter to the editor at [email protected]

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