Democracy Without Integrity Is Impossible

Published August 26, 2020

The Bulwark

[Editor’s note: The following were delivered as remarks to the Convention on Founding Principles.]

It’s an honor to add my voice to others who are affirming the importance of principles in American life.

My task is to address the indispensability of honor, integrity, and service in elected officials.

Whenever you talk about honor or integrity, you run smack into the cynics. They scoff at you. “Grow up,” they say. “Politics ain’t beanbag. Everybody does it.” Or, as our president likes to say, there are only two kinds of people in the world—“killers” and “losers.” On another occasion, after praising Vladimir Putin and being reminded that Putin kills people, Trump said, “What, you think we’re so innocent? We kill a lot of people too.”

The cynics are wrong—at least they are wrong about America. We’ve committed our share of sins and errors, but we are not like Russia, not remotely. And our sense is honor is one of our greatest strengths. Without integrity in public office, trust is impossible. And without trust, the experiment in self-government cannot survive.

Let me tell you a story. A child named Alexander was born in Ukraine in 1975 when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His mother died when he and his twin brother were 3-years-old. His father was lucky and managed to emigrate to the United States. Alexander was raised to revere the country that gave him freedom. Here are his words:

When my father was 47 years old, he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives. His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military.

Alexander was wounded in Iraq and received the Purple Heart. Later he would rise through the ranks to become an area expert on Ukraine serving on the National Security Council. And it was while there, working for President Trump, that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman saw wrongdoing.

The president was attempting to extort the leader of Ukraine. He was withholding necessary military aid—aid that had already been approved by Congress and signed by the president. Trump was withholding it until Ukraine’s leader agreed to announce a bogus corruption investigation into the president’s chief domestic political rival.

What should Vindman have done?

Well, a cynic would say, “Who are you kidding? Everybody does it. You’re in the big leagues now. Keep your head down and shut up.” And that’s what most people did. That’s what nearly all people in the Republican party did over the course of the past three years when faced with other examples of corruption, demagoguery, and deceit. They kept their heads down, they mumbled excuses, they said they hadn’t read the tweets, or they scurried in the other direction when they saw reporters approaching.

But it’s not what Alexander Vindman did. He had been raised to be honorable. He had been trained by the United States Army to report any malfeasance to his superiors. He had been taught to respect not just rank or power but standards and principles. Here are his words:

The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. The members of our all- volunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We do not serve any particular political party, we serve the nation.

General John Kelly, former four-star general, former chief of staff to President Trump, saw Vindman’s testimony and the abuse he was subjected to and said this: “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave.” Yes, our military instills the virtues of honorable service.

At the very end of his testimony, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman spoke directly to his immigrant father, who had clearly worried about the courageous step his son had taken in publicly contradicting the president of the United States. Here are his words:

Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.

But, sadly, he wasn’t. The president fired him from his position on the National Security Council, and in a petty swipe, he fired his twin brother as well. But that wasn’t all. The administration held up Vindman’s promotion to full colonel. In July of 2020, Alexander Vindman, citing bullying and intimidation, retired from the military he loved.

Now, if you think, as I do, that Alexander Vindman represents the very definition of a patriot, then you will also agree that integrity is integral to the American ideals we uphold.

Loyalty to tribe or land characterizes all people everywhere. We Americans have that, of course, but we have something more. We have a devotion to the principles and ideals of the Founding and the Constitution. We expect each American, and particularly each public official, to be loyal not to a person or a race or an ethnic group, but to the nation. When we swear an oath, it is not to a party, it’s to the Constitution of the United States.

Now I’d like to tell you another story.

In 2000, we had the closest presidential election in American history. George W. Bush and Al Gore were separated by just a little over 500 votes in the state of Florida to decide the election. The post-election legal wrangling, which dragged on for a month, was intense, and tempers were extremely frayed.

Though it embarrasses me to reflect on it now, at the time, I was a passionate, extremely partisan Republican. I despised Al Gore and thought his victory would represent a grave evil for the nation. I followed every twist and turn of the recount and the legal maneuvers with manic intensity—never for one second considering the possibility that the Democrat actually could have won. I interpreted every Democratic move as a sign of bad faith.

Finally, on December 12, just six days before the Electoral College would meet to decide the election, the Supreme Court issued its ruling: Florida’s recount violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. George W. Bush would be the next president. I was thrilled and deeply relieved. But I was a bit worried about what the effect might be among Democrats. Would they feel cheated? Would they accept it? Would there be violence?

What happened next has stayed with me ever since.

Al Gore immediately accepted the decision. He instructed his staff that no one was to criticize the Supreme Court, and then he delivered the most elevating concession speech in recent American history. Here are his words:

I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly, neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it. . . .And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.  . . .

While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to a political party. This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.

Gore’s speech was a revelation to me. It helped me to see how much partisanship had warped my perceptions. Gore had different policy priorities, but he believed in the same principles I did. He was loyal to the rule of law and to the Constitution. And that’s what matters most.

President Trump, and those who view the world as he does, probably think of Al Gore as a pathetic loser. Well, he did lose an election, but he gained an honored place in history by his graciousness. Besides, it isn’t losing that’s pathetic—it’s being unable to accept a fair loss that’s pathetic.

It could have gone very differently. If Gore had been a different kind of man, he might have condemned the Supreme Court. Because of his personal disappointment, he could have issued baseless charges of partisan influence or even of corrupt payoffs. He could have undermined people’s faith in our institutions in many ways. And considering the raw state of the country’s nerves at the time, he could have done real harm. Instead, he chose to reaffirm faith in institutions, and to put his own feelings aside in the name of national unity. In short, he acted as a real leader.

It’s certainly possible to have a country in which people are motivated only by self-interest or group interests. It’s possible to convince people that everyone cheats and that the only way to survive in this world is to do unto others before they can do unto you.

But that country wouldn’t be America. America is a nation of laws. It’s a nation of rights-bearing individuals who place loyalty to the Constitution above personal or party advantage. It’s a nation that demands integrity because only when those in power behave honorably can those who lose elections accept the results without fear.

Let me say that in a different way. If every election is a contest of unscrupulous liars and cheats who seek advantage only for themselves and their own teams, then democracy cannot survive. Without some sense of integrity, without some minimal standards of decency and fair play among office holders, those who lose will have no faith in their government, and thus no reason to abide by the results of elections.

So, the stakes are very high. Upholding principles isn’t just a boutique taste for an elite few. It’s the bedrock of our democracy. We can tolerate a few miscreants and villains. What we can never do, without losing our country, is accept that corruption and venality are normal. Jefferson said, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” We, his successors, must say “We hold these principles to be inviolable—and among these are honor, integrity, and the rule of law.”

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.

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