Public service is supposed to be about doing what’s right and what’s moral. Our founding fathers intended that elected officials be driven by a higher calling than public opinion polls. Fortunately, we have a couple of wonderful examples recently of public servants actually doing what is right, even in the face of fear-based and xenophobic outcries.
In the first example, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has put minority rights above public outcry in refusing to pursue an appeals process for California’s homophobic Proposition 8. Although Schwarzenegger is in his last term as governor, and thus does not need to concern himself with reelection, it is still noteworthy and highly commendable that he is supporting social progress even in the face of public outcry.
In the second reprieve from a pattern of popularity-poll-driven government, President Obama has expressed support for permitting a Mosque to be built in lower Manhattan. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Obama does face reelection, and also pressure on his Democratic majority in Congress, so why would he take a stand on this issue? Only because it is the right thing to do. In spite of the widespread tagging of all Muslims with the crimes of a very few extremists, religious freedom is an American right, and President Obama is standing up for that right – for all Americans.
Putting right action above momentary popularity has a revered history, and was more common before the days of instant “news” and frequent voter initiatives. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, signed the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, he relentlessly lobbied congress on behalf of the bill. A poll of President Johnson’s political base would certainly not have shown support for minority rights, so why did he push for a civil rights bill? Because it was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, elected officials frequently do succumb to political pressures and fail to do what is right. Those are the times to thank our founding fathers for creating a Republic (rather than a Democracy) with three legs to stand upon – executive, legislative, and judicial. As the one of the three parts that is not directly elected, the judicial branch of government has the luxury to make decisions that protect the rights of all Americans without fear of being ousted by public outcry. All to often, minority rights have been obtained through the courts, and only through the courts. The courts, rather than Congress, did right for all Americans by ending school segregation in 1954, legalizing contraceptives in 1965, legalizing interracial marriage in 1967, and ending gender discrimination in hiring in 1971.
Since the days of the American Revolution there has been a gap between the rhetoric of American Freedom and its practice. The Declaration of Independence states that “All men are created equal,” yet the Constitution describes “free Persons” in contrast to “other Persons” (slaves), and both documents address only the rights of males. We have come so far, and yet we still have so far yet to travel until everyone’s rights are legally protected, and farther still until acceptance for the equal rights for all becomes commonplace.