“Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
The words by 19th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre are cause for painful introspection today. Some Americans may consider this is a nation of generous, selfless, noble, intellectually and morally superior people.
But current affairs such as racist taunts on videos, expletive rants, as well as sexual harassment and assault in seemingly every sector indicate that perhaps as a nation we continue to delude ourselves as we have for centuries.
If de Maistre’s words are true, perhaps America is showing itself to be the home of small-minded, cruel, racist and completely self-absorbed citizens. Maybe Childish Gambino is right.
The recent spectacle in Singapore that was the historic meeting with President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un seems to pride photo-op visuals over the reality of outrageous human rights abuses and immoral acts.
In 2012, “The Newsroom,” a groundbreaking HBO series, opened with lead character Will McAvoy answering a question about why America is the “greatest country in the world.”
Replying with a profanity-laced, eye-opening t irade that has been characterized as “the most honest three minutes on television,” McAvoy deftly eviscerated the notion of American exceptionalism by enumerating our shortcomings on everything from education to infant mortality.
Perhaps it is time to disabuse ourselves of the sense of moral superiority and face the harsher reflection in the mirror.
On the same day that Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores to undergo racial bias training resulting from the unjustified arrest of two African American men sitting harmlessly in one of their stores, Roseanne Barr tweeted a racial slur about former presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett.
It’s time to recognize that the character flaws of our governmental representatives might be reflective of the citizens who elect them. It has always been thus.
There is an unofficial “creep list” on the Hill, and a number of congressional representatives over the years have been accused of being predators, harassers and abusers, including Ruben Kihuen, John Conyers, Nick Miccarelli, Dennis Hastert and Alan Grayson. The President of the United States admitted to paying off Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film star.
Regardless of how feckless a candidate is, once he or she is elected, it is easy to maintain a political career. Incumbency is almost an insurance policy for reelection.
Retreads in the political world are common. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), indicted in 2015 for bribery and corruption, recently won his primary after his trial resulted in a deadlocked jury.
Voters talk about holding elected officials accountable, but those in office know they can weather almost any storm, simply because they are familiar. The public’s thinking seems to be, “He’s a scoundrel, but at least he’s our scoundrel.”
Many registered voters perhaps are too lazy, apathetic or uninformed to realize the true importance of voting. They fail to connect the dots. Those outraged with police killings of unarmed African Americans seem not to realize that the police force is a direct reflection of the police chief.
The police chief is usually hired or appointed by the mayor. And the mayor is elected by voters. Neglecting to cast a vote is tantamount to voting for the person you don’t want, who may not do your bidding.
The jaw-dropping ethical lapses of the present are simply the latest in a string of worrisome political episodes. They are certainly not unprecedented, even in modern times.
The Watergate break-in and ensuing revelations that took President Richard Nixon down occurred less than 50 years ago. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment for an extramarital affair with an intern and recently demonstrated that he still has not learned the lesson from that chapter. Presidents and their appointees are imbued with great power, and with this power comes great temptation, often followed by great corruption.
Officials at all levels get caught up by greed and self-dealing. Vice President Spiro Agnew (R-MD) resigned in1973 after an investigation revealed that he had accepted more than $100,000 in bribes.
The list of congressional representatives who have been indicted and/or convicted is long and distinguished.
Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) was convicted of 23 charges of money laundering, fraud and racketeering after stealing from charitable organizations. Adding perversion to financial malfeasance, one-time Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) served time for lying to the FBI about a scheme to pay more than $3 million in hush money to conceal sexual misconduct with an underage boy.
Being indicted or even convicted is often not enough to persuade voters to throw someone out of office. Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, widely acknowledged to be a charming rogue, was reelected several terms before finally being convicted and sent to prison.
Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was convicted and imprisoned for drug possession after being secretly videotaped smoking crack cocaine. His drug and alcohol addictions were known for years, yet he won reelection as city councilman and again as mayor after his release.
Married South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, was censured by the South Carolina General Assembly after disappearing for days with his mistress. Yet the national scandal did not prevent his subsequent election to Congress. He just recently lost the mid-term election, following Trump’s tweets to remind voters of his escapades.
The list of elected officials who disappoint the public seems endless. We might wonder how this happens and who is to blame. The uncomfortable truth is that we are to blame.
We don’t vote in sufficient numbers and we don’t vet the candidates for whom we do vote. Voter turnout hovers around 57 percent, even in presidential elections. Many voters may be too apathetic to do the real work of delving into candidates’ backgrounds and platforms. Many fail to look at past voting records or the views they have espoused.
Research shows many voters simply select the first name they come to, having not bothered to familiarize themselves with candidates’ backgrounds, beliefs or platforms. It’s the lazy way out. Just pick a name and proudly say you voted.
Yes, dire consequences await those who exhibit malfeasance in office. They seldom get away with it for very long, and eventually there is a price to pay. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) were forced out of office after revelations of sexual misconduct.
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went to prison for trying to sell President Obama’s state senate seat. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (R-MO) reluctantly resigned after months of fighting charges of campaign finance violations and charges resulting from an affair.
There is hope.
Midterm elections this year are showing that indeed, things can change.With record numbers of women and people of color running for office, long-established norms of behavior may teeter or even fall. More than 20,000 women across the country have indicated a desire to run for public office, with a 350 percent increase in those considering running for Congress.
The possibility of a culture shift exists.