The Decency Drain, the Doom Loop, and the Taint of Corruption

Fresno Bee, June 2, 2024

I recently asked a group of young people whether they trust “the system.” Most said no. Youthful alienation reflects the generally cynical spirit of the times. Trust is at an all-time low. The Pew Center reported that in 2023 only 16% of Americans trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. Republicans are less trusting than Democrats. But the atmosphere of alienation is bi-partisan.

The Trump trials are a microcosm of the problem. The former president routinely lambasts judges and prosecutors as corrupt. Recently, he falsely claimed that the FBI, under Joe Biden’s direction, was seeking to kill him when they searched his compound in Florida.

If Trump is right, this is a “badly failing nation,” as he has put it. If he is wrong, we are still in the midst of a political disaster given that Trump’s party believes that the justice system is wicked and the electoral system is corrupt.

It is a wonder, then, that any young person would want any part of such a decadent system. The taint of corruption justifiably turns off decent people. Would any decent young person want to run for office, become a cop, a lawyer, or a judge in such a tainted system? Why would anyone want to serve on a jury, or even bother to vote in a badly failing nation?

This leads to the risk of what we might call a decency drain. Who will remain to run the system, if everyone thinks it is broken? As decent people get fed up and leave, those who stay behind get weirder and more extreme. This drives out the remaining normal people, making it easier for even worse oddballs to gain power.

Correlated with the decency drain is a cynicism doom loop. Cynicism ultimately empowers cynics, who are not ashamed to take advantage. When smart and decent people abdicate positions of authority, the resulting power vacuum will suck in crooks and con men. This can happen in community groups and entire civilizations. When good people abandon ship, the cynics will pounce and eliminate the last shreds of decency from the organization.

The solution is obvious. Decent people need to remain engaged. They must continue to fight the good fight. This is not easy, or pleasant. But it is necessary for organizations, and civilizations, to survive.

These problems are ancient. When Plato proposed that virtuous philosopher-kings should rule, he understood this was unlikely. Good people tend to view the ugly tumult of political life with disdain. Plato’s solution depended on the wise man’s sense of duty, which would compel him to engage in politics despite the ugliness.

In ancient reality, this did not work out well. Socrates was executed. Plato was imprisoned by a tyrant and sold into slavery. Aristotle was more prudent. But he fled Athens to escape political persecution.

Wise and decent people have often been the victims of corrupt regimes. This is another version of the decency drain. When the good guys are all either dead, in prison, or in exile, who will be left to fix things?

At that point it is too late. Which is why we must respond before the doom loop cuts too deeply. We must call out the nihilism of the cynics while reaffirming our commitment to basic decency. Young people, especially, need to be encouraged to seek justice, wisdom, and virtue in service to the common good. The future of “we, the people” depends upon the hope of the citizens of the future.

The coming months will likely be difficult for our democracy. There will be even more cynical words thrown around about a corrupt and broken system. It may become tempting at some point to succumb to cynicism, or to opt out entirely. But the system is not as corrupt as the cynics make it out to be. There are decent and honorable people working to do the right thing. And the system won’t improve unless good people remain committed to fixing it. We the people must believe that the system is worth fighting for, and that it is in our power to fix it.

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Corruption and American Values: Turning Rottenness into Teachable Moments

A new “American values” survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that Americans are pessimistic: 77% of us believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. A substantial minority think political violence can be justified. And 23% of Americans agree that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

This is a dangerous development. It can seem that everything is broken. In Congress, they are throwing elbows. The former president is on trial for fraud, defamation and attempting to subvert our democracy. The University of Michigan football team cheated. And war continues to kill innocents.

All of this can be overwhelming. When things grow dark, it is tempting to lose hope. But hopelessness is not warranted. Nor is it prudent. When hope evaporates, malice festers and violence appears on the horizon.

The ugliness of the moment is dispiriting. The worse things stink, the more it seems that everything is rotten. But it is better to smell the taint than to keep it hidden.

This is the paradox of our evolving moral sensibility. In the bad old days, corruption and iniquity were ignored or accepted as normal. In the 21st century, even minor misdeeds become magnified. But this can cause us to lose faith in humanity.

Consider the Kevin McCarthy elbow incident. The former speaker of the House supposedly elbowed Rep. Tim Burchert in the back. Burchert was one of the Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy as speaker. If the accusations are true, McCarthy behaved badly. Resorting to physical violence is always stupid and immature.

The “good news” is that as soon as the elbow was thrown, it was known. And folks piled on with outrage. Rep. Matt Gaetz called for an ethics inquiry. Gaetz was himself the subject of a prior ethics inquiry. His call for an elbow-inquiry prompted McCarthy to say, “I think Ethics is a good place for Gaetz to be.”

These tit-for-tat accusations are silly and sad. It can cause us to lose faith in wisdom and virtue. But again, the good news is when people behave badly, we see it — and rightfully condemn it. The McCarthy elbow incident shows us how not to behave. Something like this is also occurring with the Trump trials, the Michigan cheating scandal, and so on.

The moral lessons of the moment are clear. Keep your elbows to yourself. Don’t lie about your assets or about election results. Cheaters get caught. And violence is stupid.

The crises of the present are “teachable moments.” There are moral lessons and legal case studies all around us. This is an opportunity to remind ourselves about the need for honor, integrity, self-control and compassion.

These basic lessons are not a panacea. It is not easy to root out the rot. Bad things will continue to happen. It can take a long time to bring facts to light. But the process of shedding light on evil does happen. Sometimes bad guys get away with their crimes — for a time. But the slow wheels of justice and truth keep turning.

Seeing all of this rottenness can lead decent people to lose heart. So, we must guard against despair. Human beings can be wicked. But we can learn from our mistakes. We can reform our institutions and our souls. We can get better. Despair and violence only make things worse.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that humanity is constructed out of “crooked timber.” It is too much to hope that the warped wood of humanity can be made perfectly straight. But we can learn and improve.

The work of moral improvement is painstaking. Violence is appealing because it is spectacular and quick. But violence does not make anyone better. Instead of violence, we need virtue. We improve our humanity by holding fast to morality and by applying reason and ingenuity to our problems.

The process of improvement demands that we confront the corruption around us. We must call out evil and stupidity when we see it. But rather than dwelling in the mud, we should seek higher ground. We overcome despair by understanding our duty to improve our humanity despite the wickedness of the world.

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Impeachment and Corruption

Fresno Bee, February 2, 2020

Our constitutional crisis is also a moral one. The impeachment saga shows us deep-seated corruption. One side must be lying. That means that half of the political establishment is fundamentally flawed.

Either the Democrats are engaged in “demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” as President Donald Trump said. Or the president has “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections,” as Adam Schiff put it.

Something is rotten in America. We disagree about the source of the stench. But after this is all over, no one will be satisfied. Most will continue to believe that something stinks.

The accusation of corruption flows freely in both directions. The Trump camp accuses Joe Biden of nepotism. Biden’s son got a high-paying job in Ukraine, where the taint of corruption is especially pungent. But power and money infect the whole system. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner parlayed their connections to move from Manhattan to D.C.

Nepotism and cronyism infect everything. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is married to a Trump cabinet member, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. The senator declared in December, “I’m not an impartial juror.”

This admission reinforces what many Americans think about the legal system anyway: that it is rigged. The powerful get away with stuff and the powerless get stuffed away.

Or consider John Bolton. If he has information relevant to Trump’s impeachment, he should just speak up. If a kid knows something, teachers and parents encourage him to spill the beans. Law enforcement says, “if you see something, say something.” But that does not apply in Washington, where what you say depends upon personal and political advantage.

We hold our children to a higher standard than our leaders hold themselves. But shouldn’t it work the other way around? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for those who are entrusted with power and authority?

During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the late Sen. John McCain said that if a military officer were caught doing what Clinton did, that officer should resign. He explained, “I do not hold the president to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard.” He continued, “Presidents are not ordinary citizens. They are extraordinary.”

McCain’s point echoes a proverb made famous by Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This idea sounds naïve today. After Bill Clinton and Donald Trump it is difficult to believe that anyone lives according to a higher standard. Priests mess with kids. Sports heroes cheat. Politicians lie. And no one seems worthy of our respect.

That lesson can be liberating. If everyone is corrupt, then there is no reason to feel guilty or inferior. But the liberation of lowered standards is dangerous, if it gives us a license to sin. If our leaders lie and cheat, why can’t we?

The value of a moral life persists, of course, despite what the powerful do. We know that truth and integrity matter in family life, in school, and in professional life. And at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. The powerful may not be worthy of our respect. But you should want to respect yourself.

To teach our children to live well, we ought to encourage them to do the opposite of what they see in Washington. To find moral models, we should look in another direction. Let’s celebrate the unsung people in the moderate middle of things. Nurses, teachers and all kinds of ordinary people do their jobs every day with honesty, integrity and compassion. We learn to be moral by watching grandmothers, coaches, scientists and neighbors – not by watching the political class.

Good people tell the truth. They strive to be impartial. They work hard. They care for their families and help their neighbors. Good people do not live according to a calculus of personal advantage.

Ordinary moral decency may not help you in politics. But it will help you live a life that you can be proud of. In the end it is important to hold yourself to a higher standard, even if the powerful live according to a lower one.