The End of Shame?
– by David Matthews 2
The folks at the McClathy Newspapers asked a rather interesting question in their editorials:
Whatever happened to shame in politicians?
Once upon a time a politician’s career could be ended by the mere rumor of impropriety. While cheating on one’s spouse certainly went on behind the scenes, you didn’t vent those affairs in the front page of the local newspaper. A politician’s virtue was supposed to be as sacred as a schoolgirl’s virginity, and it could never be restored once it has been spoiled.
Former Four-Term Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards reportedly said in 1983 that the only way he’d lose would be if he was caught with either a dead girl or a live boy. Granted, he would eventually be taken down for racketeering, but the standard still applies.
And apparently the standard is becoming literal.
David Lightman, the author of the McClatchy article, cited several political comebacks, including former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford getting elected to Congress after getting hounded out for being caught with a Argentinean mistress, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich running for President in 2012 even after his serial affairs-turned-wives pattern becoming known, and District of Columbia Mayor Marion Berry getting re-elected even after undercover video showed him doing drugs. He notes how Senator David Vitter of Louisiana is still in office and how former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is now running for Mayor of New York City even after both were involved with prostitutes.
Granted, not everyone tainted by their own failings get a second chance, but it is becoming clear that scandal in and of itself is not the career-ending death-knell that it used to be. The fear of being “tainted” is no longer a deterrent.
The author seems to think that all of this started with then-President Bill Clinton and his impeachment for lying about getting oral sex from an intern. If he could “get away” with it, than anyone can for anything, right?
And yet, Clinton didn’t get out of the whole affair without consequence. He was fined, he lost his law license forever, and he does have the notoriety of being only the second President of the United States to have been impeached by the House. So you can’t really say that he “got away with it”, because that implies he wasn’t punished, and he was. Just ask any senior executive at a “Too Big To Fail” bank how that works.
It is precisely that comparison between government and “Too Big To Fail” that goes to the heart of the real problem.
Let’s get brutally honest here… the reason why “shame” no longer works in and of itself is because there is no real sense of accountability when it comes to those in government.
Elected officials have gamed the political system for far too long. They are already immune from criminal activities due to the outdated notion of “Sovereign Immunity”. They are allowed to manipulate the voting districts through gerrymandering. They suppress the vote through Voter ID laws. They prevent any real competition through qualification rules that they made up themselves. They are allowed to “police themselves”. Because of all this and their friends on K-Street and C-Street and the oodles of money they can bring in at any given time thanks to the “Citizens United” decision, they don’t fear voter outrage anymore.
“Shame” only works if people fear the consequences. If they’re afraid they will be voted out of office because of their actions, they will fear people knowing them. But if they believe they will never be voted out, if they believe they will never face any kind of accountability, no matter what they either do or have done, then they really have nothing to be ashamed about.
For proof, all one has to do is look back at two U.S. Senators… one current and one deceased. Both Senators John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy were tainted by scandals that should have ended their careers a long time ago. And yet both not only kept their jobs and continued to get re-elected time and time again, but they also believed they were entitled to run for the highest office in the country. And they did so long before Bill Clinton was elected, never mind think he could get a knob-job from an intern while in office.
We cannot expect politicians to simply “be” virtuous. They need to fear reprisals. They need to fear for their careers if their activities are made public. That is what traditionally stopped their predecessors. But as long as they are allowed to game the system for both themselves and their brethren, as long as they believe they are untouchable and unaccountable by anyone, then they really have nothing to be ashamed about.
And if we are not willing to vote their sorry asses out of office even knowing the truth about them, then not only do they have no reason at all to fear us, but we really have nobody to blame for this situation but ourselves.