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The Age of Corruption: How Democracies Fail
In 1973, during a 58-day period between Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation on October 10th and Gerald Ford’s confirmation as Vice President on December 6th, Carl Albert, the Democratic speaker of the House, was first in the line of succession to the United States Presidency.
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When the impeachment process was initiated on October 30th a very real possibility existed that a Democrat could succeed Nixon to the presidency. While “there was a group of liberal Democrats…who wanted to impeach Richard Nixon right away” so that Albert could become president, Albert would not cooperate as he felt that it would “further politicize Nixon’s removal” and instead sought to preserve Americans’ faith in its political institutions.
The thought that this could happen today, or that there are politicians in office today who would put the public good over their own ambitions, beggars the imagination.
There has never been a time that was entirely free of corruption. The 20s had the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the 60’s had Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Watergate may well be the most famous example of American political corruption in the 20th century and yet Nixon resigned rather than face the very real threat of impeachment.
It is difficult to think of a decade that did not experience at least one political controversy and yet it somehow feels different today.
Impeachment is no longer a threat that would stain a president’s historical image but rather a process that both sides now see as just another political tool that presidents simply shrug off. The public largely ignores the transgressions of politicians, provided the president is on their side, preferring to engage in “whataboutism” than in maintaining social norms as support for Trump and Biden show.
Donald Trump – Is he guilty of everything he’s accused of? I don’t know. Are the Dems going after him in a way that they would not other politicians? Probably. Is he corrupt? Yes! Obviously, views on Trump are partisan. There is evidence that even some Republicans believe him to be corrupt. They just don’t care. While only 25% of Republican voters think he’s guilty of breaking the law related to retaining sensitive documents, 42% of them believe his actions in Georgia were illegal or unethical.
Joe Biden – Where to begin? Despite the media and social media platforms suppressing coverage of the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election it turns out…surprise, surprise…that it’s not Russian misinformation after all. Media and social media corruption aside, there is a real possibility that the President was aware of his son’s shady “business” dealings. While nothing has as yet been proven, 60% of the public believes the president had knowledge of his son’s dealings and 57% believe the president helped him get contracts.
As we head into the 2024 Presidential election, we find ourselves headed for a contest between, in South Park parlance, a giant douche and turd sandwich and not even the standard “I’m moving to Canada if…” threat will help. The Liberal Canadian government has been deeply corrupt as this short list of scandals reveals:
2017 - Aga Khan Scandal - Trudeau becomes first Prime Minister in history to break federal ethics laws
2018 - SNC-Lavalin affair – Liberals breach ethics rules by attempting to undermine a decision by federal prosecutors.
2019 - 2016 SNC-Lavalin election donation – Evidence arises that SNC-Lavalin made illegal donations to the Liberal Party for 5 years ending in 2009, a fact the Liberals withheld from the public for 3 years.
2019 – Liberals reelected – Scandalous but not a scandal.
2020 - WE Charity controversy - The Liberal government chooses the Trudeau-linked WE Charity to run the long-promised $912 million Canada Student Service Grant.
2021 – Liberals reelected. Again. Sigh.
A society’s attitude towards corruption and law-breaking establishes a norm for what is acceptable behavior. When either goes unpunished a new baseline of what is “acceptable” is established and existing norms are either modified or destroyed.
This in turn grants permission for politicians to behave in ways that had been forbidden in the past. The impact of these changes varies based on the scale of the changes. Failure to enforce jaywalking laws may lead to some traffic fatalities but otherwise do not impact society at large. Turning a blind eye to shoplifting, as seems to be the case in California, has more dire consequences. Acquiesces to political corruption are more harmful as it leads to a distrust in institutions and political alienation within the voting public.
While it seems like distrust in institutions has been an issue for years, the list of institutions that are “underwater” with respect to their favorability scores seems to grow by the month.
Politicians fare no better.
What happens when faith in our leaders and institutions declines?
Political alienation is caused by a distrust in politicians, a belief that the government does not care what the people think, and a sense that government is too complex. According to their findings, nearly one third of Americans are completely alienated, 55% are partially alienated, and only 17% can be described as not politically alienated.
What’s more, 73% of Americans agree that politicians cannot be trusted to put the country’s needs ahead of their own.
Democratic backsliding, a process wherein a society shifts from democratic to arbitrary power, involves a weakening of democratic institutions including free and fair elections, free speech, individual rights, and the peaceful transition of power.
The chief cause of this situation is a lack of public support for democracy. We are not yet there. Even with high levels of political alienation, 76% of Americans remain committed to voting. However, 50% of Americans believe that democracy is in crisis and only 6% believe it is doing well.
Certainly, the politicians are responsible for their own behavior and the devolution of the press into a collection of partisan hacks has not helped matters, but the fact remains, that if we did not put up with corrupt politicians, we would have fewer corrupt politicians. Unfortunately, we live in a period in which corruption by “our guy” is to be defended as the alternative is the election of “their guy” and the end of the Republic as we know it.
The corruption problem will not solve itself. Only we can change things. “My party, right or wrong” is not the philosophy of a healthy democracy. This is not the first time that a democracy has experienced an “Age of Corruption” nor is it likely to be the last.
Western democracies have been lucky to date, always managing to veer away from the abyss. Citizens should remain vigilant, however, as history has shown that democracies can and do fail. Democracy is fragile. It requires civic participation, compromise, and a willingness to let others live lives we might not agree with. It requires effort and it is not clear that the public is willing to put in this effort.
Democracy may yet survive our current troubles but if it fails it will not be in spite of us but rather because of us.
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