The end of ethics

There is a cliché that what is scandalous in Washington are not the things that are done that are illegal but the things that are legal. They system of laws that we have contain an inbuilt bias to protect and enhance the wealth of those who already have money and influence. It should be no surprise that with few exceptions, the halls of government have elected officials who are already wealthy or have become immensely wealthy as a result of what we euphemistically call government ‘service’. The hard edges of this system is softened by so-called ethics guidelines that supposedly bind legislators and limit how much influence-peddling they can be the recipients of while in office and how much they can do after they leave, but those guidelines can be circumvented by those determined to do so.

But we are entering a new era when even that flimsy veneer of ethicality is going to be stripped off. Donald Trump and his family clearly do not believe that there is even such a thing as ethics or that any existing guidelines place any limits on what they can do. He seems to think that the only thing that prevents him from doing anything is if it is illegal. Even then, he has a history of taking the most expansive view of what is legal so the only thing that he may avoid is what is so blatantly illegal that he risks actual arrest and prosecution and that even the greatest sycophant would find it hard to swallow. And given his manifest greed, his desire to amass more wealth, and his willingness to avoid paying his obligations if he can get away with it, we can expect him to use his office for his personal advantage, ethics be damned. We can expect the next four years to consist of one scandal after another involving his and his family’s finances. Given the fanaticism of his supporters and the extreme docility of the Republican legislators, we can expect a whole swathe of executive actions that will test the extreme limits of presidential power not just in terms of policy but in terms of personal enrichment. The only question is whether there is a limit to what even those people are willing to tolerate or whether at some point his greed will go too far.

Since the tone of any organization is set at the top, this attitude that ethics are so passé now and that pretty much anything goes is likely to be adopted by his cabinet appointees as well. The only question is how far down the chain this will percolate. Will it stop only with the political appointees or will the career people at all levels of government also decide to join in feeding at this trough, so that the US becomes like some countries where what are effectively bribes become essential in order to get even the most routine transactions with government processed?

Anthony DiMaggio foresees an epic ethics fiasco ahead.

For those who would downplay these concerns by claiming that U.S. politics is already corrupted by money, my response is simple: things can always be worse. The corruption of politics by money via campaign donations is just one form of political perversion. There are others, as reflected in concerns over patronage, bribery, and conflicts of interest such as those described above. One needs to look no further than my home state, Illinois, to see how political patronage and personal financial interests compromise government. Illinois governors are notorious for their blatant corruption. For example, former Republican Governor and ex-convict George Ryan ran a “pay-to-play” ring out of the Secretary of State’s office, with driver’s licenses shamelessly sold for bribes.

Many Americans will be surprised to learn that social science studies regularly fail to uncover a consistent, statistically significant relationship between campaign donations on the one hand, and members of Congress voting on legislation favored by donors on the other. Furthermore, recent scholarship concludes that the most common policy outcome is continuation of the status quo, with lobbyists in Washington failing most of the time in securing new benefits via legislation. Despite sizable campaign donations, members of Congress are risk averse, often seeking to avoid the negative exposure associated with pushing unpopular reforms.

Complicating matters further, political scientists find that lobbyists don’t even try to “buy” policy via campaign donations. Rather, they seek to establish and strengthen relationships with officials who already agree ideologically with their demands. One of the main roles of lobbyists, social scientists argue, is providing the information and expertise officials need to advocate for policy changes that benefit corporate interests

Most officials are socialized to embrace elitist, upper-class values, because they are part of the upper class. The famous sociologist G. William Domhoff spent years documenting how being socialized through elitist social, economic, and interpersonal networks allows for the perpetuation of the American upper class. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci was right to focus on how the hegemonic power of socialization drives the indoctrination process. Socialization in favor of elite interests is absolutely vital to perpetuating plutocracy.

Correcting the perversions endemic in American politics requires more than disclosure and divestment from Trump and his nominees. Even “getting money out of politics” is unlikely to cure the problem of business dominance of government. Rather, Americans must take the initiative and purge the political system of the bi-partisan, wealthy officialdom who currently dominate Congress, the courts, and the White House. This project will require tremendous effort and a decades-long fight to roll back capture of government.

We could be on the eve of government scandal and corruption on a scale like we have never seen before that could possibly be the impetus for widespread reform. The question is how relentlessly the media will cover it. Trump is of course a master of distraction and he will likely do what has worked for him so far, and that is create one trivial distraction after another, even on a daily basis, so that the pressure that a sustained scandal can provide for change does not have time to build as the media pursues these squirrels hither and yon. The media should ignore the petty personal vendettas that he pursues via Twitter like the one about John Lewis or Meryl Streep. While they reveal his thin skin and are no doubt entertaining, they are of no real consequence since they do not tell us anything new. The media should focus on the concrete things that he and his entourage and his cabinet actual do while in office.

But I have my doubts that the media will show such discipline. They are driven by ratings and clicks, and petty feuds between Trump and everyone else seem to draw audiences.


  1. jrkrideau says

    The question is how relentlessly the media will cover it

    Err, you’d better look to the foreign media. The US media remind me of a puppy saying, “Yes, yes, please give me another biscuit”

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