Three questions we should ask political candidates


Tom Rocklin, Iowa View contributor
Published 11:59 a.m. CT Oct. 31, 2017

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Since the election of President Donald Trump Iowa has seen an increase in activism by Democrats and progressives but will that make a difference come 2018?

Iowans have an unusual political experience. Because of our first-in-the-nation status in presidential elections, we have gotten used to a level of access to candidates most folks just don’t experience, and we typically demand the same access to candidates in state and local elections.

Potential presidential candidates in the next election are already trickling into the state. More immediately, we will vote in gubernatorial primaries in just a few months. In every election, we will all have the opportunity to ask candidates questions. But what questions?

I propose that there are three questions that every citizen must ask of themselves, and that these are exactly the three questions we should ask candidates to answer.

First: “Who do you mean when you say ‘we?’” When you say “we must …” or “we deserve…” whom are you referring to? Arguably, the drafters of our constitution counted only white, property-owning men in their “we.” Some people today seem to count only native-born Americans in their “we,” while others count all people, whatever their sexual preference, gender identity, skin color, country of origin, language, or other categorization. Let’s call the people we mean when we say “we” our fellows.

Second: “What obligations do I have for my fellows?” Am I responsible for assuring that our fellows have their basic needs — for food, for shelter, for health care, for education, met? Or perhaps, my responsibility is much more limited. Maybe I am only responsible for not directly harming my fellows. Maybe whoever my fellows are, they are pretty much responsible for meeting their own needs. 

Third: “What is the role of government in meeting my responsibilities to my fellows?” Some might answer that government is the primary way we organize ourselves to meet our responsibilities to our fellows. We tax ourselves to combine our resources to meet our responsibilities to our fellows. Others might argue that other social institutions, for example, religious organizations or social welfare non-profits are the way to meet our responsibilities to our fellows.

There are many legitimate answers to each of these questions. Our responsibility as citizens is to reflect on the questions enough to know our own answers, work to elect public officials with similar answers, and then hold those officials responsible for having the integrity to implement policies consistent with their answers.

Tom Rocklin recently retired as Vice President for Student Life at the University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa City.

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