THE PROMISE OF “1237” – A PERFECT POLITICAL PRIMER

In order to secure the Republican nomination, aspiring presidential candidates must obtain the support of 1237 delegates.  Apart from designating a prized political threshold, the number simultaneously points to an important biblical warning. The 37th verse of the 12th Chapter of the Gospel of Saint Mathew focuses attention on one of the more dangerous threats confronting American society today, namely, the careless use of words.

According to Jesus, the mouth speaks from the “overflow of the heart” (Mathew 12:35). As such, speech actually discloses an individual’s inner nature. As candidates of both political persuasions court the support of their respective devotes, they would be wise to filter their conversation – and most especially their promises – through this political primer.

A promise is essentially a declaration of what one will either do or refrain from doing. According to legal allocation, a promise is a binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act. Similarly, a campaign promise is a deposition or guarantee made to the public by political aspirants who are trying to win an election. Unfortunately, promises made by such candidates are often abandoned once in office.

The American journalist, satirist, and cultural critic H.L. Mencken famously defined an election as “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” On-demand cable and electronic media outlets have underscored Mencken’s cynicism concerning the political arena and its contending promise-makers. According to a recent Pew Research survey of election promises (1995-2015), only sixty-seven percent (67%) of all politicians kept their campaign commitments. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only four percent (4%) of likely U.S. voters think that most politicians are willing to keep the promises they make on the campaign trail.

The beloved author Dr. Seuss illustrates the value of employing Jesus’ proposal (cited in Matthew 12:37) to reverse the negative view that the majority of Americans have of politicians across party lines. Published in 1940, Horton Hatches the Egg is the saga of Horton, a friendly elephant, who was tricked by a very lazy and selfish bird name Mayzie, to sit on her egg. “I won’t be gone long,” she promises, “I give you my word.” Reluctant at first, Horton agrees. However, instead of a swift return, Mayzie flies to Florida for an extended vacation.

In spite of isolation, hunger, adverse weather, humiliation, huntsmen, and “Big Tent” profiteers who kidnap and force him to appear in a circus act, Horton keeps his word. Unlike the duplicitous bird, Horton faithfully sits on Mayzie’s nest for fifty-one weeks, enduring the hardships of betrayal by often stating, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!” In the end, the egg eventually hatches into an “elephant bird” – with an uncanny resemblance of its loyal custodian.

Horton Hatches the Egg is the fifth and most popular of Seuss’ extensive publications. Adopted into three videos, and a 2000 Broadway musical, the book is much more than a children’s bedtime story. It is a masterful tale of trust, loyalty, responsibility, and the transformative power associated with honoring a promise. Considered alongside Saint Mathew’s 12:37 biblical warning, the book is the perfect political primer – a required read – for candidates and leaders who must earn the confidence and trust of their respective constituencies by learning the value of carefully negotiating and keeping their word!

Four basic components are required to properly negotiate a promise: (a) offer, (b) consideration, (c) acceptance, and (d) mutuality.  First and foremost, a promise describes a specific offer, an action, and/or aptitude that an individual intends to provide in the future. This initial component is the value proposition that the receiver of a promise is invited to consider. It can take the form of a significant expenditure of money, effort, service, or reliance. It can also describe an agreement not to do something.

Consideration is the second component of a promise, characterized by the attractiveness that induces a party to accept and freely enter a contractual alliance. The existence of consideration distinguishes a contract from a gift. A gift is a voluntary and gratuitous transfer of property from one person to another, without something of value promised in return. In contrast to a promise, failure to follow through on a gift is not enforceable.

Acceptance is the third movement of the promise negotiation process. Acceptance may be expressed through words, deeds, or performance. Generally, acceptance must reflect the terms of the offer. If not, acceptance may be viewed as a rejection to the initial offer. Finally, mutuality describes a “meeting of the minds” – the basic substance and terms – that both parties have negotiated and agreed to accept.

When examined through the lens of the aforementioned process, Horton Hatches the Egg provides several lessons for the contemporary religious, business, and most especially, political leader.

Mayzie is a promise breaker.  Like many contemporary politicians, and the Old Testament Jewish Pharisees, to whom Jesus’ exhortation concerning the inauthentic use of words was originally directed, Mayzie’s promissory invitation reflected the duplicitous character of her inner nature. For her, a promise was not a negotiation of record, but an oral tactic intent on soliciting support from the gullible and naïve.

Horton, on the other hand, represents the quintessential promise keeper. Unlike many politicians, he is the ideal of loyalty, persistence, and dedication. Even when confronted by criticism, difficulty, and physical hazard, Horton is unwilling to waver or compromise the values and standards associated with the terms of his promissory acceptance. When hatched, the elephant-bird is a testimony to his respectful use of words and authentic inner nature.

The standards of Holy Scripture are often at odds with those of secular society. A striking example pertains to promises and the use of words. While the political, business, and social marketplace may tolerate manipulative, and less-than-totally-honest negotiations, Jesus exhorted leaders to speak judiciously. In fact, He insisted that an individual’s very words would one day be used to either acquit or condemn them! The following is a catalog of two polar word conventions:

Acceptable Speech Unacceptable Speech
Words that edify and encourage Filthy and deceitful language
Conciliatory language Words spoken in haste
Expressions of appreciation Speaking evil of others
Honest and authentic adulation Inauthentic flattery
Graceful words Murmuring and complaining
Humble expressions Flamboyant language
Words that unite Words that divide
Tempered language Exaggerations

In Oaths & Oath Breaking (2004), John R. Holmes contends that making and keeping a promise is “central to the heroic code.” According to Holmes, people in 11th century England regarded oath and/or promise breaking as a serious sin. Like John R. Holmes, psychoanalytic clinician Herbert Schlesinger contends that society depends on a noble citizenry characterized by honesty and trust. In his book Promises, Oaths, and Vows: On the Psychology of Promising (2008), Schlesinger examines the psychology of the promise by drawing on the literature of moral development in children, classical literature, Greek drama, Shakespeare, and Western religious traditions. Starting from Nietzsche’s premise that man is “the only animal who makes promises,” Schlesinger insists that the very act of making a promise is one of the highest of all moral achievements.

Like politicians, business and religious leaders all make promises. Unfortunately, assurances to deliver value to customers, provide opportunity to employees, deliver growth for investors, and contribute to the spiritual wellbeing of society are regularly broken. Despite the transparency unleashed by social media, customers, employees, shareholders, and religious adherents simply cannot verify the veracity of every promise. As a result, the public’s confidence in institutions has declined over the last four decades.

While low, trust in business is still higher than the overall confidence level of Americans to their civic leaders. The Annual Governance Survey (Gallup) shows that trust in government is even lower today than it was during the Watergate era. This trend is documented in a variety of national surveys.

Since 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has provided politicians, policymakers, and scholars with a clear and unbiased perspective on what Americans think and feel about issues such as national spending priorities, crime and punishment, intergroup relations, and confidence in institutions. Unfortunately, the data shows a 25-point decline from 1972 to 2014 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. The General Social Survey also shows declines in trust in our institutions, although these declines are often closely linked to specific events.

Recent attitudinal studies support the claim that companies that keep their promises are, in fact, more profitable (Zingales, 2013; Simons, 2008). According to the data, the significant cause of this unfortunate attitude is the perception of broken commitments. When asked what can be done to improve trust, seventy-two percent (72%) of respondents to a Gallup Poll (2008) suggested that leaders “keep their promises.” In addition, evidence suggests that followers respect and customers are willing to purchase the products and/or services of business leaders who place a high value on keeping their word (Doty, 2009).

Finally, trust is also essential to democracy where people must be willing to place political power in the hands of their elected representatives and fellow citizens. Without trust, individuals would be unwilling to relinquish political power to those with opposing viewpoints, even for a short time. A Pew Research Center study (2008) discovered that in nations where “trust is high, crime and corruption are low.”

Every politician knows that the key to winning elections is to make great promises. Campaigners promise to cure the ills of society including taxes, war, government corruption, and pollution. Instead, if elected, they will bring about vast improvements in education, employment, infrastructure, and the economy.

The size of the elected office seems almost correlated with the size of the promise. Even at the state or local level, however, politicians in close races may attempt to extract a few additional votes by promising to improve a specific problem that an interest group cares about the most.

While many cynical voters have built up defense mechanisms, at the conclusion of U.S. presidential election cycles most constituents experience the painful stings of disappointment. Referred to as “negative expectancy disconfirmation,” the condition involves feelings of irritation and distain associated with the failure to receive what has been previously promised. Although psychologists and commercial marketers originally used the theory, it has since been adopted to explain the ill effects of political election cycles.

Expectation Confirmation Theory (L. Festinger, 1957) involves four primary constructs: (a) expectations, (b) perceived performance, (c) disconfirmation of beliefs, and (d) satisfaction.

Expectation Conformation Theory (ECT)

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The geo-political impact of negative expectancy disconfirmation, resulting from broken promises, cannot be overstated. As perceptions of candidates promise-breaking become increasingly pronounced, the ill effects of ECT are magnified. The unfortunate result is society’s current default position of immediate distrust of all politicians, business, and religious leaders.

If our nation’s leaders ever wish to regain the trust of their respective constituencies, the adverse consequences of negative expectancy disconfirmation must be reduced. Only by “watching our words,” and  “keeping our promises,” will society begin to trust the words of its leaders once again. Great leaders inspire followers who are willing to let them “win” without having to employ the inauthentic tactic of wild and unrealistic promises.

A humorous yet insightful story is told of a man in a hot air balloon. Realizing that he was lost, the novice balloonist reduced altitude and descended to a woman below. “Excuse me,” he shouted, “can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is – I am still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help!”

“You must be a politician,” the woman asked. “I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault!”

With the pre-convention debates in the rearview mirror, Republican candidates, like the balloonist in the preceding anecdote, are busy navigating their rise to clinching the GOP nomination. The path to obtaining the support of the required 1237 delegates, however, should not be obtained by inflating their campaigns with the hot air of exaggerated promises. It is always better to under-commit and over-deliver than over-promise and fall short.

In the end, may the winner be the political elephant (mascot of GOP) who authentically speaks from the “overflow of their hearts,” and who “meant what they said, and said what they meant . . . for the “honorable” elephant is the one who is faithful, one hundred per cent!”

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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