Civic virtue expected of those in US high office goes missing all too often

There is one standard for ordinary Americans, another for the wealthy, yet another for the somewhat politically powerful

The Biden White House has been a lot less tainted than the previous administration. EPA
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Many Americans, on the left and right, are profoundly alienated from a political system they regard as deeply corrupt. This cynicism even primes some to believe former US president Donald Trump and failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake that US elections are shams. Mr Trump even declared that Senator Bernie Sanders was cheated in Democratic primaries – a claim Mr Sanders dismissed.

There is no evidence of any rigged elections, but both parties and all three branches of federal government have helped create an atmosphere of sleaze.

Most Americans are willing to accept a degree of social inequality. For example, the more money one brings to a criminal trial, the better the likely outcome. Battalions of lawyers with diverse specialisations, forensic scientists and accountants, private investigators, psychologists, psychiatrists, former police officers and so on provide a much more formidable hurdle for prosecutors than overworked public defenders.

Prosecutors, for instance, won't seriously consider pursuing the death penalty, where it exists, against defendants of means. Execution is therefore in effect reserved for non-wealthy individuals, especially when the defendant is a black man and/or the victim was a white woman.

Late 18th century assumptions that shaped the way the US system deals with power and accountability have proven defective. The framers of the constitution expected everyone to operate in their self-interest. But they assumed that the social and political elite would largely indulge in a somewhat attenuated form of bias.

All systems, they understood, ultimately rely on civic virtue. The more prestige and power individuals or factions accumulate, the more members of that elite need to exercise a higher form of “self-governance” – not merely repudiating corruption but embracing self-regulation in the national interest.

The more prestige and power individuals or factions accumulate, the more members of that elite need to exercise a higher form of self-governance

This is an intended feature (alas a bug) of the American system to not just informally (as with wealth influencing the quality of legal protection) but often formally granting unusual degrees of unregulated autonomy and exemption to those dominating the national political hierarchy. With civic virtue playing an increasing role, they presumed, such elites would conceptualise their self-interest more in terms of institutional than personal prerogatives and privileges.

Congresspersons would naturally fight to preserve legislative authority and powers, while presidents and the courts would stick up for the executive and judiciary, respectively. Within a few years of the Constitution’s ratification, however, it became clear that the emergence of formalised political parties produced a huge and largely unanticipated partiality that greatly impeded the functioning of political checks and balances. Parties instinctively protect their own, across institutional lines.

Some of the most important guardrails established at the Constitution’s founding were greatly weakened as bad actors found significant protection within the party system. Whether real or perceived corruption has gotten worse over time or not is immaterial. As a practical matter, the system is shot through with impunity that only increases with greater authority – the opposite of the arguably intuitive notion that greater power requires stronger restraints.

The (reportedly) relatively robust restraints over who can order the firing of US nuclear weapons illustrates that such a system of limitations can work if real checks and an honest, equitable outcome were the goal. But it doesn’t appear to be. It is possible to give someone the authority to say "no,” as when it comes to national survival. But there is nothing similar regarding many truly egregious forms of corruption.

Examples are everywhere. Hardly a week goes by without a new revelation about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and/or his wife behaving improperly, unlawfully failing to report or disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from interested parties, and other improper financial relationships with vested interests on the extreme right.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. AP

Mr Thomas’s behavior is beyond outrageous. But because the Supreme Court has no ethical code and prefers not to police itself, thank you very much, he remains completely unaccountable.

Congress and the Democrats are no saints. During the first two years of President Joe Biden’s term, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was implored by countless patriotic groups and individuals to restrain stock market trading by members of Congress, which can obviously and easily become a form of insider trading. At first, she said she simply wouldn’t consider the matter, and then she admitted it was important but ultimately and predictably did nothing.

As for the White House, Mr Trump, his cabinet and, especially, his family (his administration gave itself permission to ignore laws against nepotism) seemed to have set to work as soon as he was inaugurated milking the system in what often seemed simply a for-profit venture. The US system never saw anything like it before. We may never know how deep the rot went.

But what we certainly do know is that, as long as he was in office, he was immune from prosecution and, in many cases, even investigation. He may face the music now for some of his more egregious, scandalous misdeeds, but as long as he was president, he was untouchable.

The Biden White House has been a lot less tainted, to say the very least. But the President’s son, Hunter, although he’s never been a government official, does seem to have tried to profit by his last name. The Justice Department has been taking an inexplicably long time to decide whether he should face criminal charges on a tax matter. Once again, the impression is terrible.

Meanwhile, revolving doors between the government and private sector, and processes of bidding on contracts and outsourcing – particularly when it comes to military expenditure (the biggest chunk of discretionary, and often even non-discretionary, national spending) means that there is a huge federal trough by those who can find a way to get their snout in it. This pervasive, fundamental set of mechanisms driving US system often may not be unlawful, but it’s another big factor reasonably informing public cynicism.

The bottom line is that, with very rare exceptions, there is one standard for ordinary people, another for the wealthy, yet another for the somewhat politically powerful, and near-total immunity and impunity for those at the very top such as Supreme Court justices and sitting presidents. Some of them even seem to enjoy flouting the rules.

No wonder so many Americans are disposed to dismiss the entire process, including perfectly legitimate elections, as a sham and a scam. The stench of corruption hangs heavy over the Washington swampland and poor old civic virtue all-too-often seems to have been quietly abandoned.

Published: May 05, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: May 08, 2023, 5:14 PM