Are your elected officials principled or stubborn?

by Megan Rawlins Woods

As I watched the debt ceiling standoff between Republican lawmakers and President Joe Biden over the last several months, I returned to a question I have been contemplating for several years: What is the difference between taking a principled stand on an issue and being a stubborn, egotistical obstructionist?

For most of us, whether a politician seems principled or egotistical often depends on whether we agree with the stand they have taken. But with just a little effort, I believe we can get past our biases.

Our culture is built on the idea of winners and losers. In sports (naturally) and business, in academics and talent, even in romance and family — we see competition in all of it. We want to win at life. And if there are winners, there must be losers.

This cultural idea is prevalent in politics. Obviously, there are definite winners and losers in elections. However, as a government by the people, it’s dangerous to approach every single topic or issue as a competition, with close to half of the country being designated “losers.” This mentality creates a country of “us” vs. “them,” with each side claiming a monopoly on truth and morality and painting the others as deluded, ignorant, or even evil.

We need to stop viewing political opposition as an enemy to annihilate. We cannot silence the opposition. The so-called enemy is not going anywhere. In fact, they are equal participants in our democracy with valid concerns. There will always be people around us with whom we disagree. We live together. We work together. We go to school together and church together and are part of the same communities. We need to learn to govern together.

Governing together means respecting and understanding different perspectives. As President Henry B. Eyring, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, “… differences can be seen as an opportunity. … [We can] see a difference in someone else not as a source of irritation but as a contribution.”

Unfortunately, we — the voters — seem to celebrate extremism. We want to be winners. We want to vote for winners. We click on the viral links and support efforts to give ego-driven politicians more exposure. We also cheer when the opposition falters or fails. We mock their mistakes or missteps (literally, in the case of Biden’s tripping or Trump’s cautious descent at West Point).

Our celebration of extremism means we are supporting candidates who have no intention of collaborating to pass legislation. I have seen candidates campaign by claiming they will not go to Washington, D.C., to make friends. I have seen incumbents boast that their colleagues find them difficult to work with. We have politicians who, when they are presented with persuasive arguments, choose to dig in their heels to save face. That isn’t being principled. They seem to mistake antagonistic anger with strength, as if being insolent equates to standing on principle. Stubborn grandstanding is no way to run a democracy.

This type of stubbornness creates frustration and limits effectiveness. The best legislation comes through bipartisan efforts, and those efforts require negotiation, moderation, compromise, and collaboration. When elected officials work to build bridges, relationships, and friendships, they are more likely to produce the kind of legislation that has the longest lasting positive impact.

When I am trying to determine if a politician is driven by principle or ego, some questions I ask include: Is this a pattern of behavior? Does this politician routinely stand against bipartisan legislation that has wide support? Does their opposition to the legislation guarantee them media attention or a viral clip? Have they passionately declared their opposition to or support for a piece of legislation before it has even been discussed, debated, or written? Do they seem to have a knee-jerk reaction of anger to any idea presented by the opposing party? Do they appear to relish their ability to stand in the way of bipartisan legislation?

If the answer to these questions is yes, the politician may be driven by ego and not principle.

Correcting this aspect of divisiveness will require us to begin building intellectual relationships with our political opposition. We start by humanizing them as people, trusting that they are motivated by a sincere desire for good. We look for common ground and shared principles. Only then can we focus on creating policy to enact those principles. There is a healthy tension between different ideologies, and when we learn to respect those, we can find lasting solutions. Can we learn to see differences as contributions? If so, everybody wins.

Megan Rawlins Woods is the senior director of Nonpartisanship for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She is from West Jordan, Utah. She earned a bachelor’s degree in planning and resource management from Brigham Young University.