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Lee Rasch: Can “pay it forward” work in politics?

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We’ve heard examples of people anonymously extending a good deed to someone they don’t know. It might be paying for the next customer’s gas at the pump. Maybe it means sending a kind note to someone simply because you appreciate their work. The purpose is not recognition. It’s simply extending a kindness to someone with the thought that they, in turn, may extend a kindness to someone else.

It is not to be confused with a “quid pro quo” act. In fact, if done in the right spirit, the person initiating the kind act will likely not want to know the outcome. It’s an appeal to the better angels in ourselves. Most of us believe the world would be a better place if more people practiced paying it forward.

The phrase “pay it forward” is being used here to refer to altruistic, prosocial, cooperative behavior. There is evidence to support that it works. Sarah Pressman, Tara Kraft and Marie Cross concluded in their article, “It’s good to do good and receive good …” that both the givers and receivers reported better life satisfaction, increased optimism, more gratitude and a greater sense of well being.

This leads to an interesting question. Can a more prosocial, paying it forward attitude work in a political environment? Let’s take a look a few recent examples. In late November, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D) and Ron Johnson (R) issued a joint statement in an effort to help heal the community of Waukesha after the tragic holiday parade incident. Their message was intended to discourage any attempt to exploit for political purposes the tragedy that occurred at the holiday parade in Waukesha.

In December 2021, both the Vernon County Democratic and Vernon County Republican parties joined together to organize a clothing drive for the Afghanistan refugees who arrived at Fort McCoy earlier this year. They will be collecting new and gently used clothing items through Jan. 31, 2022.

On Dec. 14, the Wisconsin State Senate Elections Committee heard testimony about Senate Bill 250 … Final Five Voting. The bill proposes open primaries and Instant Runoff in the general election ... an approach to counter the hyper-partisan divisiveness in Congress. The lead sponsors are Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R), Sen. Jeff Smith (D), Rep. Tony Kurtz (R) and Rep. Daniel Riemer (D). The testimony strongly emphasized the need to support efforts that promote civility and bipartisanship. Kurtz, a veteran, stated, “There wasn’t a blue team or a red team in all my years of service. … It was just the American team.”

One might say, why don’t these individuals practice these kinds of things more often? And that’s a probing and worthwhile question. It’s so easy to focus laser-like attention on the things elected officials do that we object to.

In some cases, the list may be disturbingly long. But at its heart, the true practice of paying it forward does not involve keeping score … even in politics. We don’t know whether elected officials (or anyone else for that matter) will use these examples as a reason to do the right thing for someone else. Yet, over time, the practice of paying it forward does have a measurable positive impact.

Could this work in politics? The only way to find out is if more of us, and our elected officials, are willing to pay it forward.

Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin.

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