Sunday, October 18, 2009


How many of you, I wonder, deplore the state of education in your country ... but adore the teachers who work with your kids at your local school?

How about politicians? As a group they rank low in positive ratings, but as individuals they keep getting re-elected. Do you hate politicians ... but love your local representative?

Years ago, when I was dissecting the results of a poll about workers' attitudes toward work, the findings suggested a similar disconnect: Workers thought that workers' situations were miserable ... but the majority of them were satisfied with their own jobs.

Benjamin R. Barber, a political scientist whom I interviewed at the time, referred to this phenomena as a "halo effect."

"You know," he said, "people hate Congress except for their own congressperson."

Barber's observation came to mind when I received an e-mail from a reader asking me a question about a friend whom he described as "very conservative" in his politics.

"My friend can't stand the politics of his liberal U.S. senator," my reader writes, nothing that he's particularly unsympathetic to the senator's stance on gay rights.

Years ago, however, when the friend faced a lawsuit that threatened to make him responsible for a deceased family member's debts, he turned to his senator for help after exhausting all other resources. The Senator quickly intervened, and the suit was settled in the friend's favor - "for which," my reader writes, "he is very grateful."

As a result the friend continues to vote for this senator every time she's on the ballot, even though he dislikes everything she stands for.

My reader understands that his friend might see voting against this particular senator as "biting the hand that feeds you," he writes. "But who's to say that another senator might not have been able to accomplish the same thing?"

Wouldn't it have been better, he wonders, for his friend simply to tell others about how his senator had helped him out and write her a sincere note of thanks - but nevertheless to vote in accordance with his conscience?

My reader suggests his friend should write something along these lines: "I appreciate that you, like all good members of Congress, serve your constituents regardless of their political positions, but since I am diametrically opposed to virtually everything you stand for, I'm sorry that I cannot in good conscience vote for you in the next election."

"Where should the line be drawn between standing by values central to your very being and ignoring them in gratitude for a moneysaving favor provided by a big shot that you otherwise regard with contempt?" he asks. "What's the right thing to do?"

My reader makes a good point. If you believe that an elected official in no way reflects your personal values, you shouldn't vote for him or her.

That's not really the case with his friend, though. Political beliefs reflect values, but they aren't the only values out there. Americans have a long history of voting for candidates whom they admire as people, even if they are unaware of the candidates' positions on particular issues or are opposed to those positions. Sometimes one set of values trumps another.

Clearly his friend places a higher priority than does my reader on the values reflected in his senator's effort to help him. Gratitude and loyalty weigh more heavily for him, and political compatibility less heavily, than they do for my reader.

Our values are shaped early in life. While the priorities we place on our values may change, depending on where we are in our lives, the values themselves hold pretty steady throughout. My reader's friend hasn't changed his principles as a result of the favor his senator did for him _ he's simply revealed them.

My reader's friend didn't ask me how to vote, and if he did I would never try to tell him. If he's decided that the help he got from his senator makes her worthy of his vote, then voting for her is the right thing for him to do.

As to my reader, I'd advise him to lighten up on this. We all cast our votes for a variety of reasons, and those reasons are our own. The important thing is to vote, not to vote for any particular candidate or for any particular reason.

My reader's friend is meeting his societal obligation, and my reader should leave it there.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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