Taking the pledge: the good, the bad, the ugly

It took just one pledge, signed by 274 Republicans and three Democrats, to bring about the first downgrading in history of America’s credit rating.  After witnessing the havoc that Grover Norquist’s no-new-tax pledge precipitated, it’s getting harder to dismiss the grab bag of pledges sprouting on the political landscape like unwelcome, invasive weeds. And like garden weeds that strangle productive flora, these narrowly focused pledges crowd out healthy civil discussion and responsive policy-making.

Of course, pledges of all kinds always have been an effective tool of group bonding, effectively promoting an “us” and “them”mentality. But lately there’s a new hybrid. That’s the political pledge that binds those who sign on—most of whom are members of the Republican party—to policy positions that may or may not represent the views of the majority of their constituents nor take into account particular conditions in the country at any given time.

To those who actually believe in representative government,the implications of political pledges should be deeply disturbing. Whether on the right or on the left (unfortunately, the left has jumped on the pledge bandwagon with the Social Security Protector’s Pledge), these single-issue partisan pledges are a perversion of the intent of democratic governance. By limiting the options of elected officials through pre-committments to specific policy solutions, a political pledge calls into question whether or not the signer has violated his or her oath of office by signing away the fiduciary responsibility to “support and defend” the Constitution “without any mental reservation.”

As citizens we should expect, without qualification, that elected officials represent the broad interests of we, their constituents, rather than aligning themselves with the narrowly defined agendas of unaccountable special-interest groups, such as Americans for Tax Reform, The Susan B. Anthony List, or The Family Leader.

Trying to make sense of the smorgasbord of pledges, I was reminded of the title of the late Italian director Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western.  With apologies to him, here are my own highly selective nominations for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The Giving Pledge: Founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as of April 2011 The Giving Pledge lists 69 billionaire participants committed to giving away more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes during their lifetimes or after death. This nonpolitical pledge seeks not to bind the signer to particular prescriptive acts of charity but simply to declare publicly a moral commitment to use the signers’ wealth for the public good.

The Bad

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Americans for Tax Reform.  Founded by Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform is a coalition of taxpayer groups, individuals, and businesses opposed to higher taxes at the federal, state, and local levels.  In the 112th Congress, 236 House members (234 Republicans and 2 Democrats) and 41 senators (40 Republicans and 1 Democrat) have signed away their independence and unbiased consideration of the necessity to raise revenue. Constitutional experts question whether the signers of the no-new-tax pledge have violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution, which clearly states their duty to “honor the debt” and “levy taxes.”

The Ugly

The Susan B. Anthony List’s Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge and The Family Leader’s 14-point Marriage Vow. These two pledges, which enshrine divisiveness, discrimination, and hate-mongering, inject policymakers into women’s and families’ personal lives, their medical choices, and partnering decisions.  The Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge seeks to marginalize mainstream views, such as the need for accessible, low-cost health screening for women of all income levels and easy and affordable access to birth control. This pledge further requires the selection of pro-life appointees only to cabinet- and executive-level positions. Signers must oppose abortion rights, end government funding of abortion, and promise to defund Planned Parenthood.

The Family Leader’s Marriage Vow has garnered only two signers:  Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum.  By signing onto this pledge, the two presidential hopefuls promise to oppose same-sex marriage, fight prostitution and pornography, support the scientifically discredited idea that homosexuality is both a choice and a public-health risk, support the notion that married people enjoy better health and sex, appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who are “faithful constitutionalists,” and reject Sharia law.

Incredibly, the original Marriage Vow pledge (now revised following a well-deserved public outcry) had a clause stating that African-American children born into slavery had better family lives than African-American children of today.  That’s just about as ugly and offensive as a pledge can get.  But it’s still early in the 2012 campaign season, so we’ll just have to wait and see what else pops up out of the dirt.