It is rare to find people who are satisfied with the state of politics in our society. Whether we hear complaints about the lack of civility among elected officials, behind-the-scenes deal-making, partisan posturing or negative campaigning, the most frequently heard remarks about politics are overwhelmingly negative.
And yet nearly everyone is quick to defend democracy as the best form of government. In fact, any visitor just arriving in America during an election year would be quick to observe that we love our form of government yet we despise our politicians.
Even the politicians we most admire in our history books were not universally admired in their own time. Consider, for example, George Washington. Most Americans today would agree that, regardless of other limitations he may have had, he was a person of integrity. There is, of course, the story of the cherry tree. But there are also other examples noted by historians: his thoroughgoing insistence on independence - his own independence from political parties and the country's independence from foreign nations; and also his decision not to seek a third term, which set the precedent for smooth transfer of political power.
Washington's critics, however, attacked him precisely for lacking the characteristic we regard as most definitive of his career. His fellow revolutionary, Thomas Paine, wrote to him: "The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any."
One of the chief problems facing politicians in a democracy is that they must take public positions on issues that are not only highly charged and difficult to resolve, but often insoluble. By the very nature of their office, politicians cannot rest with ambiguity on issues that are socially divisive: abortion, gun control, taxes, environmental regulation, stem cell research, foreign trade policies, health care reform. Private citizens, however, have the advantage of choosing when and where they will share their views on such issues. We have the option, if we wish, of avoiding the difficult issues and limiting our conversations to those topics that are politically neutral - like fishing, the weather, the Green Bay Packers - or restricting our conversation about politically controversial topics to the people we know will agree with us.
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Politicians do not have that luxury. Not only do they have to express their views publicly, but they also have to do so in a practical fashion - by passing laws, enforcing policies, and rendering judgments - that may seriously affect our lives. This ensures that most people will have several good reasons to dislike most politicians most of the time.
The politicians we admire from our nation's past are probably more like the politicians of the present age than we would like to admit. The "founding fathers" had more character flaws than our history books record, and today's politicians have more virtues than we read about in the press. From my own limited experience I can say that the politicians I have had the privilege of knowing have been, on the whole, among the brightest, hardest-working and sincerest people I've ever met.
That shouldn't keep us from disagreeing with them strongly when the occasion warrants, but it should cause us to remember we are asking them to do a nearly impossible job and that they are probably acting in much the same way that we would in their place.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways that ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.