This year’s Interdisciplinary Conference on Applied Ethics tapped into the current crisis in American culture: the Ethics of Politics.
Held March 15, the conferenced featured Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo as its keynote speaker, as well as breakout sessions on a wide array of topics, from how to create a more engaged citizenry, to science and politics, the impact of hackers and trolls, political tribalism and more.
“Have American politicians really support a democracy for all?” asked Dr. Carol Ross, Vice President of Student Development and Chief Diversity Officer. “It’s so important for you to ‘stay woke’ – not only for politics from a national perspective, but from a local perspective and even an international perspective, because that affects you too.”
The 10th annual conference kicked off with a panel discussion on the Ethics of Campaigning, featuring Town of Dickinson Councilwoman Sharon Exley; Professor Giovanni Scaringi, a Binghamton City Councilman; Broome County Legislature Minority Leader Mary Kaminsky; and Broome County Executive Jason Garnar. Exley and Scaringi are Republicans, while Kaminsky and Garnar are Democrats.
For too many Americans, the main source of authority is how many times they have heard a statement – not whether it’s factually true, warned the moderator, the Reverend Dr. Arthur Suggs. There is also a cumulative effect, in which small acts of dishonesty erode our trust in each other.
“To the person on the street, what’s the truth content of a campaign promise?” he asked.
“Zip,” a member of the audience responded.
Ethics begins even before a candidate files a petition, with such matters as whether they truly live in the district and what they promise, Kaminsky said. It’s unethical to promise something that you know you cannot accomplish, as well as to dodge statements of where you stand on tough issues, she said.
“Some people will say they’re ‘fact-finding’ when they know full well how they’re going to vote on an issue,” she said.
No one is ethically perfect, Garnar acknowledged, but officials should always strive to improve. For Garnar, the ultimate standard is his wife and three sons; if he can show his family what he’s doing on a campaign with pride, he knows he’s doing the right thing, he said.
Officials owe it to the public to keep an open mind and work across the aisle as needed, rather than be bound strictly by party or municipal lines, the panelists agreed. Garnar and Exley worked together on bringing a treatment center to the former Broome Developmental site, and Exley and Scaringi cooperated on an issue involving a stop sign.
When Garnar had a vision involving redevelopment of Binghamton’s First Ward, he made sure to first call Scaringi, as well as the legislator representing the district for their input – a move the economics professor appreciated.
Scaringi had the following advice for public officials and the voting public: always listen and be the last to speak, and always vote policy over party and personality.
Audience members asked tough questions of the panelists, including whether ethical behavior is taught or learned, and how to reach disenfranchised groups. There were no easy answers to the first query, but the latter revolved around getting out of the office to meet people, whether one-on-one or in issue-focused town halls.
Push polls – which deliberately distort someone running for office in favor of a candidate – and other dirty tricks were also a topic of discussion.
New York State law mandates that campaign mailers include a line stating who funded the material, Scaringi said. However, external political action groups can and do fund negative advertising, Garnar pointed out. Facebook ads can be even more insidious. Negative campaign mailers are often released just before the election, when the opposition doesn’t have time to respond, Exley added.
Candidates have the ethical responsibility to campaign on the facts and let the voters decide. Voters, however, have an even greater responsibility: to educate themselves and not fall for the dirty tricks, and vote against the people who use them.
“It’s incumbent on voters not to vote in unethical people,” Exley said.
Voters need to become more involved, and remember that elected officials aren’t leaders but public servants – with an emphasis on the last word, panelists agreed. Garnar pointed out that candidates in the 2016 county executive race held three public debates – attended by no more than 60 people, for a position that represented 200,000 residents.
“Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box. It begins at the ballot box,” Professor Scaringi said.