Opinion: Party platforms vs. codes: Living up to our motto

Ethics codes help a company aright itself and restore trust and credibility to its brand. They can do the same for political parties.

By Michael Bugeja, copyright 2021 Des Moines Register

Political parties share beliefs in platforms that often cite ethical values, overshadowed by campaign rhetoric that opponents typically find divisive. State and national Democrats and Republicans should look to business for philosophical principles that affirm unity and civility.

Researching an ethics book, I evaluated codes of about 100 U.S. companies, listing what they promote, prevent and aspire to attain. Here is a synopsis:

1. What Codes Should Promote

  • Ethical conduct, maintaining high consistent standards.
  • Teamwork, collaborating to advance the company’s interests.
  • Quality service and/or production, strengthening the brand.
  • Problem-solving, resolving issues via shared values.
  • Trust, treating others fairly, respectfully and responsibly.
  • Proactivity, anticipating problems before they occur.

2. What Codes Should Prevent

  • Temptation, taking shortcuts to attain goals.
  • Deception, cheating to attain goals.
  • Bias, treating others unfairly based on race, gender, class, or religion.
  • Self-gain, using company resources for personal benefits.

3. Values Found in Most Codes

  • Truth, promoting products and services accurately and professionally.
  • Accountability, relating to decisions and behavior.
  • Respect, promoting tolerance of honest differences of opinion.
  • Fairness, a process of continual improvement.
  • Diversity, embracing equity and inclusion.

Those values still can be found in some of the top, most ethical companies, as identified by “The World’s Most Ethical Companies 2021” (Links to an external site.) list.Virtually all of the above standards are embraced by 3M corporation, whose ethics code reminds (Links to an external site.) employees to “Be Good,” “Be Honest,” “Be Fair,” “Be Loyal,” “Be Accurate,” “Be Respectful.”

All of the above standards can be found in Sony Group’s 18-page ethics code (Links to an external site.). All officers and employees are required to uphold “Fairness,” “Honesty,” “Integrity,” “Respect,” and “Responsibility.”

Iowa’s Principal Financial Group’s 20-page ethics code (Links to an external site.) emphasizes “Integrity,” “Diversity” and “Fairness,” among other standards. Of particular note is its section on “Conflicts of Interest,” warning about “situations that may create, or even appear to create, a conflict between personal interests and the interests of the Company.”Certainly, these companies have experienced past crises purportedly in violation of standards. For instance, a former 3M employee alleged the company knew about chemical hazards (Links to an external site.) in one of its products, ScotchGard, believed to have contaminated drinking water. In 2018, the company agreed to pay $850 million to settle a lawsuit (Links to an external site.) filed by Minnesota.

In light of such lawsuits, ethics codes help a company aright itself and restore trust and credibility to its brand.

They can do the same for political parties in the wake of lost popularity, elections or reputation.

What are Iowa's values?

To be sure, political charters and planks cite important ethical concepts. For instance, a section on ethics appears in Article 1, Section 7 of “The Charter of the Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States” (Links to an external site.):

Encourage and support codes of political ethics that embody substantive rules of ethical guidance for public officials and employees in federal, state and local governments, to assure that public officials shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner that reflects creditably upon the office they serve, shall not use their office to gain special privileges and benefits and shall refrain from acting in their official capacities when their independence of judgement would be adversely affected by personal interest or duties.

The Republican Party supports (Links to an external site.) policies that honor liberty, prosperity and preservation of “American values and traditions.” Historically, this has meant such concepts as individualism, social mobility, directness and work ethic (Links to an external site.).

At the state level, the Democratic and Republican platforms are specific when it comes to their political agendas.Democrats’ core concepts (Links to an external site.) include support of equality, civil rights, education, elderly care, healthcare, family farms, clean environment, military, veterans, social justice, prosperity and right to privacy, among other tenets.  

Republican core concepts (Links to an external site.) include support of equal rights, accountability, sanctity of life, family values, First and Second Amendments, freedom of conscience, military, veterans, free enterprise, balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, among other tenets. 

Both platforms contain stances that many in the opposite camp would oppose. For instance, Iowa Democrats would restrict silencers on assault weapons as well as bump-stocks, high-capacity-magazines and fragmentary rounds. Republicans support repeal of any existing laws that infringe on Second Amendment rights to bear arms.

But both parties also share core beliefs, including support of military, veterans, equal rights, prosperity and responsibility.

Party platforms are not ethics codes, and shouldn’t be. They inform Iowa voters about various stances on local, state and national issues. But political parties might take a page from business and devise standard codes of conduct that embrace such tenets as truth, trust, fairness, diversity and civility, without the political rhetoric.

Such codes can help the party and its constituents restore credibility in the wake of lost elections, waning popularity, internal factions and external scandals. 

Ethical values not only would inform future platforms but also be a guide for Americans to come together in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), conceived in 1776 as the motto of our first Great Seal and a reminder of what it really means to be American.

Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is a distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University. He is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis). These views are his own.

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