It’s not the seat of great power, true, but the strategy Republican Dave Wilson employed to win on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees is ethically indefensible. Wilson, who is a prominent conservative politician who once ran for mayor and who has made a name for himself with anti-gay rhetoric, won a seat on the board by 26 votes after deceiving some less attentive voters in his predominantly African-American district that he was “one of them.
His election materials contained photographs of smiling black faces, lifted off the web, captioned “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” One particularly deceitful mailer said he had been “Endorsed by Ron Wilson,” invoking the name of former African-American state representative. But just like the ads and TV commercials for weight loss products, Dave Wilson’s flier contained fine print that made the misrepresentation “honest.” Instead of “Results not typical,” the campaign flier’s tiny disclaimer said, “Ron Wilson and Dave Wilson are cousins,” a reference to one of Wilson’s relatives living in Iowa who is also named “Ron.”
Wilson can be safely accorded status as a fick*—he is openly amused by the fact that his lie assisted in his election, and shows no remorse at all. He also invokes the “everybody does it” rationalization, saying, “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters.” The news media and the blogosphere is joyfully flogging Wilson for his stunt, and he deserves every lash. The episode, however raises some uncomfortable ethical issues that require objective thought and consideration:
1. This was a deliberate low-information voter strategy. It was easy to find out what Wilson looked like, and anyone following local politics in the area would know his name and race. He cynically exploited voter ignorance to get elected, just as virtually all victorious candidates for office do, in equally cynical campaigns. To cite just one example, Terry McAuliffe, now Governor-Elect of Virginia, flooded local TV with negative ads implying that GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli advocated banning all birth control. It was a grotesque distortion of Cuccinelli’s position—a lie, in other words—and the merest research would show any voter who takes his (and more to the point, her) civic responsibilities seriously that 1) the implication was false, and 2) McAuliffe is a Machiavellian sleaze to approve such a campaign. The smear campaign worked, though, and all good Democrats and the Washington Post are cheering McAuliffe’s election. How different was his strategy from Wilson’s? Indeed, how different was a substantial segment of President Obama’s winning strategy over Mitt Romney? Here, I’ll spell it out for you: “The majority of voters pay no attention and barely care, and lot of them would lose a game of Scrabble with a garden rake. They’ll believe anything. Let’s just lie to them, or not tell them all the relevant facts, since we know they’ll never check, the morons.”
2. How can it be more outrageous to win a seat on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees with this tactic than to win a political office with far more power and influence over our lives?
3. Is what makes Wilson so repugnant is that he admits his low information voter—“You know: morons!”—campaign strategy, in contrast to our national politicians, who use it but just pretend they didn’t? If an election is won with such a strategy—or legislation successfully passed using a misleading representation, say, just to pick a wild example out of the air, health insurance reform sold on the representation that “If you like your plan, you can’t keep it. Period.”—isn’t it better if the politician responsible says openly, “Yeah, I fooled everybody all right. I knew I could. Pay attention, people! Shame on you! Next time, don’t be so trusting and gullible!” That might lead to more responsible citizenship, fewer low information voters, and a less fertile ground for public lies.
4. Why is fooling voters about one’s race even considered a substantive and material lie? Should it be? If everything about Dave Wilson’s position regarding the issues was honestly represented, why should his race matter? Isn’t someone who agrees with his position but who would vote for his black opponent only because Wilson is white a racist? Is a strategy to minimize the distortion of racism really that offensive? Why should it matter to a voter that Wilson is white?
5. Isn’t misrepresenting one’s position and principles infinitely more unethical than misrepresenting one’s race? George W. Bush ran for President as a small government conservative who opposed “nation building.” Barack Obama ran as a non-divisive, racially neutral leader who would make transparency his theme. Those seem to be substantially more important and blatant misrepresentations than a white man claiming to be black.
6. Would Wilson still be lying if he had a black great-great grandmother? Massachusetts elected a U.S. Senator who benefited by claiming that she was a Native American without any more proof than that.
Dave Wilson shouldn’t have been elected because he lied to his constituency, deliberately, to get a result he wanted. What he lied about, however, should be regarded as trivial, and his particular lie shouldn’t have affected anyone’s vote at all. The fact that it may have been decisive says more about America’s problems than it does about Dave Wilson.
Pointer: Rick Jones