The greatest, most dangerous, and most frequent temptation faced by an elected official is the temptation to tell your constituents what they want to hear. It is our Satan’s apple.
Telling people what they want to hear is the enemy of progress, because there is no progress without truth. But despite the obvious drawbacks, the temptation is strong; it’s part of human nature. Most regular people spend their entire lives trying to avoid being the bearer of even mildly disappointing news. Elected officials are human beings too, with the same desire for such avoidance.
About 15 years ago I began delivering public speeches, first as an aide to an elected official and later as an elected official myself. Whenever we reached the Q&A portion, I was faced with this dilemma that has vexed every elected American since George Washington.
In addition to easy questions, constituents would invariably make statements that were false. Or offer suggestions that were either illegal, impossible to fund, or politically unpopular.
I had observed my contemporaries in similar situations and had grown used to a response that seemed to enjoy almost universal usage: some version of We’ll take a look at that.
The constituent would leave the encounter pleased, but I could never shake the feeling that a time bomb had been planted. Because that standard response was actually a comforting lie. The truth had been avoided, at least for the moment. But the truth usually comes out in the end.
One day, the constituent would realize that their idea wasn’t going anywhere and they would be even more disappointed since their expectations had been raised. Additionally, they would be unenlightened by any explanation of why their idea was a nonstarter. For their emotional protection—and in turn the political protection of the elected official—they had been sheltered from the truth.
I began to believe this phenomenon lay at the center of public disappointment in government.
That serial accommodation had corroded public trust.
These considerations—as well as a lifelong affliction of truthfulness—forced me down a different path.
I began trying out variations of an alternative response. Depending on the situation, when faced with a statement that reflected false information, or a suggestion that I knew would never happen, I would methodically present the truth. I would explain why the statement was false, or why the idea was illegal, or why there was no funding for it, or that it was outside the political mainstream and would probably not go anywhere as a result.
I committed to this approach despite its obvious short-term pain, and my commitment was slowly rewarded. Over time, I honed the craft and I would later get positive feedback from people who were at first alienated by my responses, but ultimately discovered that hearing what they needed to hear was better than hearing what they wanted to hear.
Today, I consider this approach one of my central governing principles. But it was hard work and it was not the easy path. It’s still hard.
The temptation to tell people what they want to hear has been on my mind in recent days, because we have seen some of our nation’s highest-ranking elected officials struggle mightily with it—at the same time that we’ve seen several state and local officials meet the moment and overcome the temptation.
Here is the truth: President Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. It wasn’t even particularly close. I’m 41 years old, and depending how you gauge the closeness of an election, there are up to five presidential elections in my lifetime that were closer than this one. No local, state, or federal agency tasked with guarding the security of our election process has found systematic or widespread fraud. There have been so many court cases I have lost count, but none of them have gone anywhere.
The 74 million people who voted for President Trump are understandably disappointed that he lost. Some of them are extremely disappointed. For them, nothing would be more pleasing than to hear that he didn’t really lose. That, however, is a comforting lie.
And right now these comforting lies are threatening the very essence of American life: the idea that we vote and through that vote collectively choose our destiny as a people.
The American people chose President-elect Joe Biden, which means that the only way for President Trump to stay in office after January 20 is to overthrow the greatest and most durable democratic republic in existence.
You would think that risk would be enough to help elected officials resist the great temptation.
But that temptation is powerful and some are biting the apple, most notably in Congress. Scores of Republican members of Congress have announced that rather than publicly state their acceptance of obvious truth, they will tell constituents who voted for Trump what they want to hear.
They plan to tell them, We’ll take a look at that.
These officials offer a variety of rationales for their decision, but the joint statement from a group of Republicans senators expressed the power of the temptation quite plainly.
The senators did not present evidence of any widespread fraud, they merely cited “allegations” that are “widespread,” and then offered polling numbers as evidence of voter distrust. When I read that statement, I didn’t see a grand conspiracy. I saw me, standing in front of a Rotary club in 2006, wondering how I was going to respond to the constituent suggesting that we spend $100 billion to rebuild every street in our city with concrete.
The statements in Congress this week struck me as the worst manifestation I have ever seen of the politician’s great temptation.
What makes it so bad is that the stakes are so high, because we have reached the edge of a cliff where the only way to continue avoiding the truth is to overthrow our system of government.
In contrast, we have also seen a series of elected (and appointed) officials walking the more difficult path of truth—almost exclusively at the state and local levels. They have been quiet heroes, standing for our republic and our way of life.
Georgia’s secretary of State is an elected official. I’m not a student of Georgia politics, but I think it’s safe to assume his role is pretty thankless. The reality of our system is that the vast majority of elected positions—and they number in the tens of thousands—entail no glamour or public profile. Our whole experiment in self-governance depends on a legion of people doing what they’re supposed to do—quietly and thanklessly—while resisting the elected official’s greatest temptation.
I’ll probably struggle to remember Secretary Brad Raffensperger’s name two weeks from now, but he has demonstrated the intestinal fortitude lacking in some elected officials with much fancier titles and much higher profiles. And our republic will still exist on January 7, January 21, and hopefully for decades to come because of people like him around the country who have played their unpleasant, but necessary, roles in this process.
I suspect most of these people would probably tell you they’re just doing their jobs. But the reality is that their jobs are hard. And their jobs are subject to a great temptation. Yet rather than telling people what they want to hear, these public servants told people what they needed to hear, including the most powerful person in the world.
It appears right now that a majority of Congress will join the ranks of these patriots later this week. Yes, some in Congress will not, and they will likely be remembered for giving in to temptation. But many, many more have stood up for truth and resisted the temptations of comforting lies.
These American heroes are preserving our way of life. They deserve our praise and our gratitude.