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.

Read more at:

Celebrate decency of ordinary people

Life is more wonderful than we often think

Fresno Bee, December 26, 2016

  • Be grateful for good news
  • Don’t let cynical grumps get you down
  • Take time to recharge your moral batteries