Can You Keep a Promise?

October 25, 2011

Political Theory


Society works because there are contracts and covenants between citizens that they are expected to fulfill. This happens all of the time in our lives. Take for instance if you ask your friend to guard your seat in class while you go to the bathroom. If that friend agrees then he is expected to uphold that promise as any good friend would. However if he breaks that promise and lets someone take your seat while your gone, not only is your trust with that friend damaged, but you’re out of a seat.

According to Thomas Hobbes, writer of Leviathan, “And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Hobbes is saying here that covenants, which are basically promises that have no serious consequence if they are not kept, are simply meaningless words. He is saying that promises need to be enforceable in order to be effective. The example of the seat being taken isn’t all that serious, but these covenants are broken on a much larger and more important scale.

Politicians are often known for making promises in their campaigns that they end up not once elected. This basically shows that they are lying to the people who voted for them because they promised something. For example, President of the United States of America Barack Obama has broken a few of the promises he made while campaigning for the presidency. According to politifact.com, Barack Obama promised to, “Expand the purposes for which leave can be taken under the Family Medical Leave Act to include reasons related to domestic violence or sexual assault.” So far President Obama has not addressed this issues during his presidency. This may seem like a small issue, but promises like these could’ve seriously swayed voters to vote for Obama. President Obama is behaving much like how Hobbes said he would. The president’s promises are simply words. He may have even made this promise expecting to never fulfill it.

Has he failed?

This type of promise breaking is a bit more serious than the stealing of the seat example. The repercussions of President Obama breaking his promises are much more severe. Not only could Obama end up losing voters, but also some people with domestic violence issues may have lost their jobs for missing work due to the fact that they didn’t have medical leave. Obama as well as other politicians have made many more promises that were never kept, which is what leaves some to not trust politicians.

Whether a covenant is miniscule or quite severe, I think that they should be kept regardless of force, as Hobbes says. However, not everyone has the same opinion as I do. What is your opinion? Should politicians be held responsible for things that they say while campaigning? Should there be a severe punishment to keep them to their word such as removal from office? All I am looking for is a government that I can believe in and rely on. Just remember how devastating a broken promise can be.

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13 Comments on “Can You Keep a Promise?”

  1. elyssashea Says:

    I am in agreement with your belief that covenants should be kept regardless of force. While I have never thought about it before, politicians really do seem to operate in a loophole that many others do not. As a politician, you essentially have the ability to run on whatever platform you wish, and then be elected based off of tenants that you may never have the intention of fulfilling.
    While I do support Obama as a leader, I think your example serves well to this point. According to Hobbes, our presence in the country implies that we consent to be governed tacitly. By this, we enter into a moral obligation with the government that we will thereby fulfill our end by paying taxes, etc. In exchange, the government is supposed to perform certain duties in return…. but what is Obama providing for some of these people then? For one, as you said, certain citizens likely voted for him because they identified with a platform, particularly they may have hoped he would extend the Family Medical Leave Act. Secondly, these people likely held up their end of their bargain by paying taxes and obeying the law (considering that they are hypothetically not in jail right now due to the IRS).
    If we are to consider that the people who did not end up covered in the Family Leave Act lost their jobs or homes, then I would argue that those are items of their property. Since Hobbes believed that property is the item most “threatened” when rules are “natural,” then wouldn’t Obama’s failure to protect these people’s property be the ultimate failure? I feel he should be accountable for failing to protect the one thing that people worry about most (other than a fear of death, of course). If he isn’t protecting people’s property, what is he really doing?

  2. rpsafian Says:

    Promises and covenants are very complex concepts. They are an important part not only in our everyday lives, but even more in the political sphere where every decision or lack thereof affects millions of people. In my opinion, politicians should be held personally responsible for the promises they make while campaigning. However, instead of calling them promises, where the candidates say “I promise to do this”, they should be saying “this is the problem and here is my plan to fix it.” On Barack Obama’s campaign website (www.barackobama.com), there are tabs for updates, events, groups, fundraising, and volunteers, but no information on his future plans, campaign goals, or how he is going to fix the problems he already has. However, on both Herman Cain (www.hermancain.com) and Michele Bachmann’s websites (www.michelebachmann.com), there is a tab for issues and plans. Instead of making promises and covenants while campaigning, presidential candidates should address campaign issues with carefully executed plans on how to get the job done. The problem with campaigning now is that many candidates say they want to do something, but have no plan of action as to how to make their plans happen. If presidential candidates were to plan out how they were going to fix things, they we would be able to hold them more accountable for the actions, whether their plan succeeds or fails. Americans should be voting on how candidates will actually solve problems, not just the idea of change.

  3. clawren Says:

    I agree that politicians should be help responsible for the things they say during campaigning. Often candidates will say whatever they can to get votes, but never actually end up following through on a majority of the things they promised. Unfortunately, once people figure this out it is too late and the candidate is already in office with no repercussions for their failed promises. It’s false advertising for candidates to promise certain things and then not follow through. If they were held responsible for their actions then it is more likely that important changes would be made. All people ever do is complain about what the presidents are not doing, so it should be legally enforced that candidates can only say things that they can actually follow through on. If this happened then people would have a lot more faith in our political system. We elect our presidents based on their platforms, so if they don’t keep their word then they are not doing the job we elected them to do. There should most definitely be consequences for presidents not keeping their promises because it would make our political system most more efficient and trustworthy.

  4. emmaschneider11 Says:

    I agree with the statement that politicians should keep their promises regardless of if there is force present to make them do so or not. But I don’t think this will ever happen. Hobbes made the statement “And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” For a reason, and the reason is it is true. No matter if it is a politician, or a CEO, or an everyday person people use promises to get what they want without intentions to keep their word. It is a depressing fact, but it won’t be resolved anytime soon.

    It is devastating when a promise is broken in your personal experiences. When someone says they will do something for you and they don’t it makes them seem not only inconsiderate but untrustworthy. Politicians are people too, and they are not exempt from breaking promises. When they break a promise to the public it makes them appear uncaring and untruthful on a large scale.

    If politicians aren’t going to change their ways, then maybe citizens should change theirs. People have to realize that not everything that comes out of a politician’s mouth can be believed. You have to take what is said with a grain of salt and keep the possibility in mind that that promise may not be realized. But to make politicians hold their promises citizens have to create consequences if the promises are not met. Politicians have to know that if they don’t keep their word they will have unhappy constituents, and more than that those constituents will do something, whether it is not voting for that person again or lobbying for change, or finding other ways to enact he things they want.

  5. cbeidler Says:

    I think it’s obvious that most people are going to agree that politicians should keep the promises they make during campaigns whether or not they are forced to. However, I feel as though people aren’t giving the president or anyone else in a government office enough slack. While I’m certainly not condoning broken promises, can you imagine how much these people have on their plates? Politics is so much more than just “keeping promises.” Especially for the president. With everything going on in the world and our nation (probably most of which we don’t even know about), I’m sure Obama is just trying to make it through the day.

    I’m also sure that Obama is trying to act on the promises he made because those are the things that, not only voters showed they wanted, but HE wants them as well. But, once again, it’s not the simple. The president isn’t the be all, end all of decision making. He has to answer to Congress as well… and with all the wheeling and dealing going on, I imagine it’s hard to get ANYTHING accomplished quickly and easily.

    That being said, emmaschneider11 makes a great point. Clearly politicians are not going to change their ways until citizens change theirs. Why should they? We need to be more active in our political system in order for it to work the way we want it to.

  6. ksoisson Says:

    Politicians not keeping promises is a classic characteristic, especially with the overwhelming amount of tasks need to be addressed. This is why one shouldn’t be very surprised every time that it happens. “Promises” are simply used to be elected and gain support. The tough part is, there’s no way to punish politicians because they never really entered into a contract or covenant. I don’t believe there is any efficient method to punish politicians for not carrying out promises. Should politicians still be held accountable for their words? Yes. However, this accountability should be directed towards the reputation of the politician. It would be almost impossible to hold politicians accountable for every little action. They make so many promises during their campaigns that it would be hart to keep track of each one. Let the untrustworthy reputations continue and they will lose support. Like emmaschneider11 said, people just have to realize that they cannot believe every thing a politician says. This will go over much easier with the public when politicians don’t follow through.

  7. jsimon99 Says:

    I do not believe that politicians should be held responsible for all the promises that they do not keep. We do not live in a perfect society where everyone keeps all the promises they make. Even in a general society like with the friend saving the seat, there is no perfect society and everyone will break promises, which unfortunately is just a part of our everyday lives. I do agree that a society is run on trust and contracts between citizens, but many people in the world have learned that you cannot trust everyone, which goes back to our lectures earlier in the year when we talked about survival of the fittest. I’m not associating survival of the fittest with our politicians, but instead with how our society’s citizens today cannot always be trusted with their promises.

    On the political side, yes, the president and all other politicians have bigger roles to take care of when it comes to making promises, but that does not mean they should be held responsible for every promise they make. When was the last time that a president or politician made every single promise? In a president’s campaign speech, they proclaim their promises to attract voters. They also have many other problems to deal with and things to take care of during their term, while also trying to fulfill their promises. Many voters don’t realize all the “behind the scenes” work that goes in to a government as a whole. There is a series of events that have to take place for a president to try and fulfill a promise for the citizens. Then on top of that, the president has to worry and take care of all other problems in the country and in the world. He has to make sure our country runs in the best way possible. There should be no severe punishment if a politician does not keep his or her promise because there are so many other things to worry about to make things run well. Our society today is not perfect in any way, it is a part of our everyday lives whether we choose to trust people or not.

  8. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I would absolutely love to hold politicians accountable for promises that they fail to uphold, but the reality is that this will never happen by nature of American politics. Given that this can’t happen, it seems somewhat useless to simply vote politicians out of office who fail to deliver on every single pledge that they make during the campaign.

    Let’s face it: the job market is tough. As most (if not all) of you reading this are in college, you can well understand how this puts pressure on us to just make ends meet. While everyone likes to make politicians out to be scapegoats and completely responsible for our problems, they’re subject to just as much uncertainty in the job market as the rest of us. Imagine that you’re sitting on Capitol Hill one day, and the next day, you find out that your constituents have voted you out of office. Now you’re out a job. Sure, you could probably use your law degree to get a new job, but you liked THAT job; you don’t want to go back to what you used to do, and you’re also getting used to having two houses. Before every other consideration, politicians are people too who are looking out for their own rational self interest; in this case, to keep their jobs as Senators, Representatives, etc. I would probably do the same. In order to keep their jobs, they obviously have to win elections. How do you do that? You convince the American populace that you can do a better job than candidate X at ruling. How do you do that? You make sweeping promises that convince people that you’re with them. That’s what they’re all doing, and because they’re all playing the same game (the game to win the “hearts and minds” of the voters), the elections all have similar outcomes: once elected, our politicians break their promises because they were completely impossible from the beginning. It seems to me like it’s the American public should be mad at itself for constantly buying into such a system, not the politicians who are acting rationally and taking care of themselves.

    Democracy has some amazing benefits, but it also has huge drawbacks. The fact that broken promises are inevitable might just be one such disadvantage of such a system. The way I see it, given the plurality in American politics (note that I don’t say “America” but rather “American politics”) in that we have increasingly divergent views on how to run the country, there is no way for candidates to appeal to sufficient voters on their side of the political spectrum without breaking promises. To win enough votes to get elected in the first place, politicians must offer the American public what they cannot deliver. If they don’t offer this, their opponents will cut them down and say “hey, look at him. What a quitter. Don’t vote for him; vote for me. Look at what I’m offering you!” and that’s exactly what the public will do. It’s a game of images, and the one presenting himself as the strongest and most able will win every time.

  9. benjishanus Says:

    I am also in agreement that politicians should NOT be held accountable for unkept promises. I use the word “unkept” as opposed to “broken” for a very specific reason. Just as jsimon99 stated, the reality is that we live in an imperfect world. Time has ability to change everything, which is out of our control as people. Rather than continuing to harp on politicians, I would like to take this in another direction, and apply the same concept to athletes and sports, in order to offer a new perspective that can be applied in similar fashion.

    Being a big Yankee fan, I have closely been following the situation regarding CC Sabathia, their ace starter, and his opt-out clause. CC has the right to opt out of the final 4 years and $92 million of his deal in order to become a free agent and ultimately sign a new deal for even more money. The reason that this opt-out clause was initially put into his contract was because he was unsure if he would enjoy playing baseball in New York. However, following the 2009 season, Sabathia’s first on the Yankees and one that ended with a World Series title, CC stated that he would not choose to trigger his opt-out clause, still two years down the line. He had adjusted to life in New York and embraced playing for the Yankees, while his family had comfortably settled there as well.

    However, here we are two years later, and while CC has yet to officially opt-out of his contract, he is very widely expected to any day now. Although the Yankees would hate for this to happen, as they would have to give him even more money to desperately retain his services, CC has every right to do so. The reality is that TIMES HAVE CHANGED. Although he still loves playing in New York, his stock would be extremely high as a free agent, and it is an opportunity to make tens of millions of more dollars, an opportunity that very, very few people would pass up. CC Sabathia may have said that he would not opt out of his contract two years ago, but the clause is in his contract for a reason, and he is likely about to exploit it.

    One final note, this is a prime example of the difference between a covenant and a contract. Although CC Sabathia essentially made a covenant that he would not opt of his contract, he was not legally bound to that covenant. However, he signed a contract that DOES legally entitle him to opt out of his current deal. The legality aspect makes all the difference in the world. A part of me views CC Sabathia as a politician, simply doing what he thinks is best for himself, his family, and his career. That is what living in a capitalist society is all about.

  10. lukeythekid Says:

    While politicians should be held accountable for promises made on their campaigns, it is important to remember that there are a lot of other forces which determine whether a politician can actually follow through with these policies. The problem with enforcing such contracts is that the actual passage of laws and policies can be blocked by opponents, leaving the person who outlined the idea to be seen as the bad guy. Trying to figure out who is to blame is a bit of a grey area, because obviously someone who makes grand and outlandish claims should be called out for dishonesty. It is true that because there is no concrete punishment for lies on the campaign road that a candidate can lie his way into office, but ambitious men with good intentions should not be made out to be the villain when they are idealistic rather than corrupt.
    While there is no direct punishment for politicians who do not follow through with their promises, they suffer at the polls when voters realize that they have been screwed. The whole foundation of our politician system is built on the fact that politicians depend on the opinion of people. If voters are unsatisfied, they can simply vote the particular person out of office. Going back to the example about Obama, it looks like he is going to have a very tough time with the 2012 election. The Republican party is not exactly showing the strongest (or sanest) candidates, but people are so fed up with disappointment in Obama that they may give up on him. I have never seen so many people get excited about politics as when Obama was on the campaign trail for the 2008 election – the man set them up for a huge disappointment with empty promises, and he will pay for it in 2012.

  11. ljgoslin Says:

    I do agree that politicians should keep their promises, because they are bound by their constituents. However, I do believe that Barack Obama has had a lot of other issues on his plate, and those pressing matters excuse one un-kept promise. However, I do think that many other politicians don’t stick to not only their promises, but for what the majority of their constituents stand for. They act in their best judgement, which isn’t always their own opinion, instead of what the people they vote for want. There is no credibility in the political process anymore because of the fact money has so much to do with political success. Politicians get nowhere without interest groups influencing their vote. This problem has no solution because you have to have money to win. No one is enforcing laws against interest groups spending and PAC money restrictions are few. It is a damaged a broken system, much different from the beginning of politics. I’m not sure the evolution of self interest in politics is a bad thing, or something that just can’t be reversed.

  12. nnvirani Says:

    Much like the people above me, I agree that Politicians should be held accountable for the things they say and the promises they make. However, there is no appropriate system to punish them for not keeping up with said promises. When Politicians campaign, they do not always know the situation they are entering. Things are always easier to say than to do. When a covenant is made, it is assumed that due to the level of familiarity/trust, the promise will be kept. Politicians, as one party, make an agreement with people that a vote for them will result in the promises they make being kept. A successful nation is one in which the people support the policies of their government and have full trust in their government. If the people that voted for the leader to come to power no longer trust his/her word, what does that say about how supportive they will be to their government? If a politician makes a promise that he does not keep, it is worse than not getting selected at all. Liars never prevail. A negative opinion by the people of a nation to the leader of the nation itself is enough of a punishment.

  13. lukeythekid Says:

    While politicians should be held accountable for promises made on their campaigns, it is important to remember that there are a lot of other forces which determine whether a politician can actually follow through with these policies. The problem with enforcing such contracts is that the actual passage of laws and policies can be blocked by opponents, leaving the person who outlined the idea to be seen as the bad guy. Trying to figure out who is to blame is a bit of a grey area, because obviously someone who makes grand and outlandish claims should be called out for dishonesty. It is true that because there is no concrete punishment for lies on the campaign road that a candidate can lie his way into office, but ambitious men with good intentions should not be made out to be the villain when they are idealistic rather than corrupt.
    While there is no direct punishment for politicians who do not follow through with their promises, they suffer at the polls when voters realize that they might not get what they want. The whole foundation of our politician system is built on the fact that politicians depend on the opinion of people. If voters are unsatisfied, they can simply vote the particular person out of office. Going back to the example about Obama, it looks like he is going to have a very tough time with the 2012 election. Some people are so fed up with disappointment in Obama that they may give up on him. He has had a lot of trouble with actually getting his policies implemented and that really frustrates voters.

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