The US primary election season begins in earnest today and all eyes will be on West Virginia, where a remarkable political contest is underway. Some say it is a battle for America's soul. Discount the hyperbole and the West Virginia primary is still extraordinary. A convicted former coal baron is in a three-way contest to be the Republican party's candidate for November's senate race. There are signs he might just prevail.
Whatever the outcome, Don Blankenship’s candidature has focused attention on American voters’ newly apparent disinterest in penalising politicians for moral failings or even for a criminal record.
Blankenship was released from prison a year ago this week after serving time for wilfully violating mine safety standards, which caused America’s worst mine disaster since 1970 and killed 29 people. The candidate has expressed no remorse, has exulted in a nativist campaign that features little blonde girls, as well as the boast: “I am Trumpier than Trump”.
He has described himself as a “political prisoner”, persecuted by former US president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Republican leaders have expressed bemusement at the dexterity with which he has turned a felony into an electoral asset.
Their surprise is, well, surprising. Blankenship is one of four convicted Republican candidates running for election this year.
On June 26, former New York Republican congressman Michael Grimm, a convicted criminal who was told by the sentencing judge: "Your moral compass needs some reorientation," will try to reclaim his old job. And on August 28, Donald Trump's close ally, the convicted Arizona former sheriff Joe Arpaio, will seek the Republican senate nomination. Meanwhile, on November 6, incumbent Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who was sentenced for assaulting a journalist, will seek re-election from Montana.
Other than Gianforte, these convicted candidates have something in common. They cast themselves as victims of the previous administration’s supposed political bias and legal overreach. They cite prison time served as a battle scar sustained in the fight against the allegedly corrupt liberal opposition. And they wear conviction as a badge of political honour, not shame.
This is a profound change for politics in America, the world's oldest constitutional democracy. For years, India, the largest democracy, got a bad rap for its propensity to elect criminals to parliament. In his 2017 book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, political scientist Milan Vaishnav noted that in the past three general elections, candidates charged with serious crimes were three times more likely to win than their "clean" opponents. India's negligence has long been ascribed to its dysfunctional politics. The argument goes that needy Indian voters may prefer thuggish MPs because they're more likely to get results, literally by hook or by crook.
But what of the US, where until the 2016 election a criminal conviction was seen as disqualifying anyone from a political career and misdeeds such as adultery, tax evasion, blatant lies and the base abuse of rivals were regarded as beyond the pale?
Once upon a time, Mark Twain’s observation that “there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress" seemed amusing. Now it is more like a sobering prediction.
In this context, it is interesting that Mr Trump’s pre-election advice to West Virginia only covered short-term political expediency. Blankenship should be rejected, Mr Trump said, because he would be ultimately unelectable against a Democrat in November.
He did not mention the candidate’s criminal record, nor his racial slurs about the Republican Senate majority leader’s Taiwanese-born wife. Is that a sign of a political culture that is increasingly shameless about ethics, moral conduct and the acceptable boundaries of public discourse?
Academic Peter Stearns, who has written a book on the history of shame, recently noted that “the word shameless is being tossed around an awful lot these days”, both in and about the US, but it might not be wholly true. American political discourse might be increasingly coarse and vitriolic but shaming as an act of community policing continues relentlessly, devastatingly and most predominantly on social media.
Stearns argues that where once America relied heavily on shame-based punishments such as public stocks, now it unleashes a tirade on social media networks. Fat-shaming and accusations of sexual impropriety, hypocrisy and racism can hound victims out of their jobs, force them to relocate and even drive some to suicide, he says, adding: “Society could do a better job defining what deserves to be shamed, while also setting limits.”
The suggestion is eminently sensible and has a long pedigree. What deserves to be shamed has long been guided by custom more than law, as Greek historian Herodotus said in the 4th century BC.
In the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke called it the “law of fashion”, enforced by fear of reputation and ambition for esteem within a community.
But should political office be left to arbitrary laws of fashion or the higher rule of reason, which always requires honesty, integrity and service to the greater common good?