David Adler: Reputation matters in Idaho, American politics

February 13, 2014 

When the State Department filed an amicus brief in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), urging the Supreme Court to strike down segregation in public schools, it did so not for reasons of domestic politics but for reasons of state. Officials at Foggy Bottom were compelled by considerations of international reputation.

The United States, locked in a battle with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of people across the globe, could not afford to be viewed as a nation that practiced institutionalized discrimination, a policy that relegated some of its citizens to second-class status. A “nation’s foreign policy,” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, “is the face it wears to the world.”

Since the founding, Americans have been fairly obsessed with the face they present to the world. It’s not surprising that reputational matters would be exalted; after all, our self-declared birth in the form of the Declaration of Independence, claimed a right of revolution buttressed, as Jefferson wrote, by an appeal to “the opinions of mankind.” In the drive for a constitutional convention, champions of a systematic, governmental makeover pointed to lost trade and commercial opportunities owing to self-inflicted damage on our reputation through violation of our own treaty pledges and agreements.

The protection of the reputation of a nation, like that of a state, is and always has been a pre-eminent concern, particularly when a constitution confers high duties and broad powers upon government officials, including the responsibility to “promote the general welfare,” but it is not the province of a single person in a republican form of government. In contrast to old England, in which a sovereign king was responsible to protect “his doom,” including preservation of the reputation and manners of his nation, there is in the United States a division of that responsibility. In Washington, it includes those who meet on Pennsylvania Avenue. In Idaho, it includes those who perform “the people’s business” on Capitol Boulevard.

On Tuesday, Gov. Butch Otter told a gathering of reporters at the Idaho Press Club that he found no evidence that the Legislature’s anti-gay disposition — reflected in its opposition to Add the Words and refusal to extend civil rights protections — had damaged the state’s reputation or efforts to recruit businesses and industry. That might be the case, but history suggests otherwise. Institutionalized discrimination, whether grounded on race, gender, religion, ethnic background or sexual orientation, is an impediment to recruitment of talented men and women, and tourism and the lucrative benefits, including economic stimulus, derived from convention traffic.

A state’s reputation, broadly perceived in the quality of its education system, environment, income levels, employment, career opportunities and a variety of quality-of-life characteristics, including its treatment of minorities and its civil rights laws, falls within the responsibilities of elected officials. It falls, as well, to the electorate. Indeed, there must be broad societal concern about the face that Idaho presents to the world.

Gov. Otter has said he would leave to lawmakers the issue of whether to enact legislation to Add the Words. A passive, deferential approach is one way for a governor to behave. But there is another, a more affirmative manner, one that asserts executive leadership.

On Sept. 28, 2007, in an appearance before the City Club of Idaho Falls, Gov. Otter was asked about the relevance of a candidate’s sexual orientation. He justly replied, “It shouldn’t matter.” That disposition— indeed, that leadership— is what Gov. Otter could exert to shape the face that Idaho wears to the world.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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