Angels do not govern men, a fact we face more and more often.
The U.S. Senate this past week alone featured one member who may face an ethics investigation (Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whose corruption case ended in a mistrial), one member who asked for an ethics investigation into himself (Al Franken of Minnesota, accused of sexually assaulting a woman on a USO tour 11 years ago) and one aspiring member threatened with expulsion if he wins office (Roy Moore of Alabama, accused of inappropriate relationships with teenage girls decades ago).
Morality and its counterpart, hypocrisy, are again front and center in the political debate. Moore is of course an outspoken evangelical Christian who rose to prominence after installing, and defying a federal court order to remove, a two-ton monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama state courthouse. Franken is a proponent of Obama-era guidelines for handling sexual assault and harassment cases on college campuses, rules which curtail due-process rights for the accused.
We could indeed use more virtue in the public arena. Might I suggest an oft-forgotten one: humility.
Many a victorious candidate speaks of being “humbled” by the electorate’s approval. Too few maintain that sentiment once in office.
Power — or the exercise of it, the act of governing — can do that. But so can all that goes with it: cameras and microphones, ritual and pomp, flattery and favor-seeking. All of this grows as one moves up the ladder. Some stay humble, but many don’t.
What takes humility’s place? Here are some guesses based on observation: Out-sized confidence in one’s ideas and their impact on thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of other people at a time. A sense of being indispensable, even irreplaceable. A notion that one’s mistakes, present or past, will remain conveniently unmentioned.
But the biggest threat to humility is that we, the voters, are inconsistent at best about demanding it.
We ask who can do the most, the fastest, once in office. We score debates based on who offers the zingiest one-liners, no matter how many words they might have to eat later. We have turned our elections — and the higher you go, the truer this is — into such warped spectacles that few people with healthy amounts of ambition and self-regard even dare to enter them.
Think about our last two presidents: Mr. “I’m LeBron, baby” and Mr. “I alone can fix it.”
Or consider the history of Roy Moore. Here is a man who calls himself a constitutional conservative, but who not once but twice was removed from the bench for refusing to submit to our constitutional order as it pertains to the judiciary.
He had the right to disagree with higher courts about religious displays in courthouses and same-sex marriage. He did not have the right to defy their orders. In the name of his principles, he became what he hated: an activist judge ignoring the rule of law.
There is nothing conservative about that. There is nothing constitutional about that. And there is nothing humble, or otherwise virtuous, about that. Yet here he is, perhaps on the verge of winning a statewide election for the third time.
Humility can be just an election away, but only if we make sure of it.