Remember the golden rule?

October 9, 2023 4:30 am
The Ohio burgee waving along with the national flag of the United States of America. Getty Images.

The Ohio burgee waving along with the national flag of the United States of America. Getty Images.

One of the first moral lessons Americans learn as children is the golden rule — some version of  “treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Many of us may have learned the principle from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” but the value exists everywhere from Islam (“as you would have people do to you, do to them”) to Confucianism (“what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”), and the idea has worked its way into purely humanist ethics for centuries.

And it’s no wonder. The golden rule is clear. It’s applicable to any situation. And it’s universally relevant — to those from any faith background or none. So why is it that our elected representatives have such a difficult time grasping it?

Should elected representatives indicted of federal crimes resign from office, or not? It shouldn’t matter if it’s George Santos or Bob Menendez.

Should nominations of Supreme Court justices be confirmed in the last year of a president’s term, or not? It shouldn’t matter if it’s an Obama nominee or a Trump nominee.

Does claiming an election was “stolen” and “rigged” undermine confidence in our democracy, or not? It shouldn’t matter if the speaker is Stacey Abrams or Donald Trump.

Is huge deficit spending on discretionary programs a good thing, or not?  It shouldn’t matter if the president is Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

The right to choose leaders who answer these questions in the way we want — the way that reflects our values — is a hallmark of our representative government. But too often our leaders answer these questions based solely on whether it achieves a short-term political victory, fires up the partisan base, or contributes to their re-election chances.

Partisan politicians and pundits twist themselves into knots to explain why the facts this time justify a departure from the principle they pledged allegiance to on the campaign trail (or last week, for that matter).  And Americans see right through it:  According to Pew Research, only one in five Americans trusts our federal government to do what is right most of the time, and almost none of us (2%) trusts the federal government to do what is right all the time.

Partisan trust in government (or what little there is) see-saws back and forth between Republicans and Democrats depending on who is in the White House, deepening our partisan divides. And we aren’t just untrusting: More than half of us are “frustrated” with the government and one in five is downright “angry.”

These distressing statistics bear two lessons. First, the golden rule isn’t that hard. A kindergartener knows not to steal a friend’s cookie when the friend walks away, not because the cookie doesn’t taste great but because it wouldn’t be right. Our political leaders — all adults with fully formed brains, despite some evidence to the contrary — should be able not only to grasp the principle but resist the temptation to violate it. “Yes, but this situation is different because…” is partisan nonsense rejected by millennia of religious and non-religious leaders and philosophers.

Second, having principled representatives who follow the golden rule is of vital importance to the health of our nation. When citizens are cynical, frustrated and angry, we can’t flourish as individuals or in community. We are more susceptible to misinformation. We become apathetic nonvoters, and the problem gets even worse.

So my plea today is that we Make the Golden Rule Great Again. Prioritize voting for leaders who have the moral courage to stick to their espoused principles no matter the circumstances. And if they don’t, vote for someone who will.



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Jay Jackson
Jay Jackson

Jay Jackson is an Omaha attorney and author of "Decent Discourse: Saving Your Country by Loving Your (Wrong?) Neighbor." He received his law degree from George Mason University School of Law and a master of laws in international law from George Washington University Law School. Prior to settling down in Nebraska, Jay served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years.