Montana Viewpoint: Could political distrust be the downfall of democracy?

Jim Elliott

“That few in public affairs act from a mere view of the good of their country, whatever they may pretend; and though their actings (sic) bring real good to their country, yet men primarily considered that their own and their country’s interests were united and so did not act from a principle of benevolence.

“That fewer still, in public affairs, act with a view to the good of all mankind.”

That was written in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, and as you can see, not much has changed. Nor had much changed since the days of the civilizations of Greece and Rome because Franklin’s observations came from studying those civilizations.

That tells us that those who seek public office most often do not seek to do good for others unless it coincides with their own philosophy. It also tells us that if we want a government that serves the people that we need to be a lot more discriminating in deciding who to vote for.

Early in my legislative service, Francis Bardanouve, my seatmate and mentor, told me, “A lobbyist will show you only one side of a coin. It is up to you to turn it over.” Francis was one of those few who did “act with a view to the good of all mankind.” It was not by coincidence or accident, it was because he had read the same philosophers and histories that Franklin read.

So, how do we turn that coin over? It is heavier lifting than you might think because the odds are stacked in favor of the lobbyist or the office seeker. They are stacked because, while we have many things to do in a day to feed our families and ensure their well-being, the office-seeker has only one job, which is to convince us that they are capable, honest, and sincere. And they have not only the time, but the money to do that. Being an informed voter takes work, and most of us have neither the time nor inclination to do that work, so we rely on those voices we trust to help us understand, and we better damn well hope that we have chosen the right people to trust.

We assess the characters of politicians less by their individual actions than by the party they belong to. If a person belongs to a particular party then we assume they share the same attributes that we think all other members of that party have.

That might make for an OK evaluation of a person’s character if the characteristics and policies of that party were understood—not necessarily agreed with, but understood. However, today Americans seem so obsessed with what they have been told is the evilness of the other side that understanding anything has fallen by the wayside. As long as that obsession prevails, we are doomed to deadlock because of distrust, and I would argue that distrust is what is going to bring this country down, and sooner than later.

While we are happy to disparage the other side, there are two or three things that we are busy ignoring, one is the character of the individual politician and the other is the policy that they favor, policy being the philosophy and politics being the means by which they hope to enact it.

Given the attitude of the American people, policy is buried under how we feel about the politics. You can hate a political party and what it stands for, even though you might agree with a policy held by that party as long as you didn’t realize that it was associated with that party. After all, a good idea is a good idea regardless of its political affiliation. Which is to say, you can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.

One of my best friends in the Montana Legislature was a self-proclaimed “Reagan Republican.” He was the least partisan person I knew, there was no politics in what he did or how he did it. “I just want to make it work,” he would tell me. I might not have agreed with his viewpoint on how to make it work, but I never, ever doubted his sincerity, and that is something I miss very much in government today.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.