Advice to new graduates and summer interns: You have obligation to be an ethical advocate
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Dear 2019 graduates and interns heading to DC,

If you are reading this, you are probably thinking about a career in Washington. As someone who has spent more than 25 years working on the politics of public policy, I applaud you. Our democracy needs smart, idealistic, and hard-working young people like you. As you pour into the cafeterias in Longworth and Dirksen, and the bars in Adams Morgan and along H Street, indulge a bit of unsolicited advice from someone who has been around for a while: Find your ethical foundation, and stand firmly on it.

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Hopefully you are working politics because you believe in something larger than yourself. If you are in it for the fame, wealth or glory I would strongly encourage you to consider another line of work. There are much more efficient ways to get rich and famous than politics, and we have enough selfish, self-interested people in D.C. as it is.

As you set about changing the world, remember that the point of a democracy is not just the policies the system produces, but also the system itself. Democracy is both a means and an end. We debate over the best path forward because the best path forward is rarely obvious. That means you may not always be right. Even if you are right, you need to go about making your case the right way. As you recall from Intro to American Politics, in Federalist One Hamilton wrote, “…we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.” In other words, even the good guys sometimes behave badly.

Talk is the point of politics. We talk instead of beating each other up (at least in theory). As such, how we talk matters. In part that means being more civil when you can. To return to Federalist One, “in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.” Everyone would be better off if there were a bit less shouting and a bit more listening.

But sometimes shouting and incivility may be called for. You may not always respect everyone with whom you disagree (or who agrees with you). But that does not give you license to behave badly. You have an ethical obligation to the conversation that is American politics, and to the system that allows that conversation to take place. You can be passionate, focused and fierce while staying within ethical bounds.

Where those ethical bounds are is something only you can say. For some it might be religious teachings, for others it could be words of wisdom from a parent or grandparent. Others might find a touchstone in a philosopher or favorite book. Search for those boundaries and write them down in a letter to yourself, and visit that letter from time to time.

The obvious boundaries are the ones you are the least likely to face - I have served in senior positions in the House, Senate, and administration and no one has ever slipped me an envelope stuffed with bills. Rather it is the little decisions you make in the moment that add up and ultimately matter most. It is the technically accurate statement that isn’t really true, or the action that is technically not illegal but that is almost certainly inappropriate, that matter. Find your boundaries in the gray areas. Write down the line you will not cross to keep your job on a note card and carry it with you or tape it to your computer.

The stakes are high, do not take this task lightly. If you do not honor the conversation that is politics, that conversation will stop. If you do not advocate for our system even as you advocate for your preferred policies, that system will cease to function.

Oren Shur, a senior political strategist, put it well, “Your parents probably raised you to be a good, decent and honest person who treats others the right way – working in politics is not an excuse to abandon those lessons; it places a higher burden on you to honor them.”

Now go change the world.

Peter Loge is an Associate Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and is director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. Over a 25+ year career in Washington he has served in senior positions in the House, Senate and Obama administration and in a range of organizations.