U.S. House, Gage Skidmore/CC 3.0
Failure to hold the powerful to account is hardly new. But in this era of unparalleled hubris, pathological liars not only go unpunished in politics; they get rewarded with even more power.
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A broadcaster admits under oath to spreading known lies for ratings. State legislators and governors pass laws barring expression that they themselves have participated in and enjoyed. Members of Congress call for sedition and then take seats on governing committees. And despite fomenting insurrection, engaging in targeted harassment of citizens, and public promises to pardon any offenses against the law and the state committed in his name, the former occupant of the Oval Office easily establishes another campaign for the presidency.
Yeah, you might say that American politics has an accountability problem.
Of course, the failure to hold the powerful to account is hardly new—we’re creeping up on the 50th anniversary of the Nixon pardon, after all. But something about this era feels different. The harm and damage are brazen; the perpetrators are unapologetic; the impact is catastrophic, and there’s little to no collective interest in imposing order. Where once a single instance of plagiarism could sink a campaign, now candidates can manufacture whole identities and win their seats without fear of expulsion.
Sunlight doesn’t disinfect; it just shows the extent of the filth in full Technicolor.
No small portion of this change can be laid at the feet of Donald J. Trump, whose 2016 campaign killed the concept of political shame with an assist from then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Between the naked venality, corruption, and abuse of the Trump campaign and the blatant hypocrisy of the hastily invented “rule” that SCOTUS nominees can’t be considered by the Senate in an election year, our political culture became entirely detached from cause and effect. As a certain subset of voters reveled in the callous disregard for norms as an affirmation of their own power, the lesson learned was that never apologizing could convince people there was nothing to apologize for.
From there, the feedback loop of offense and immunity cycled into culture and society. It’s the habit of representative government to reflect the interests of the people it governs and for the people to display their interests to the government, so it’s no surprise that the lack of inhibition was mirrored between the two. New efforts at accountability like Me Too were characterized as moralistic mobs, while traditional checks and balances were branded “fake news.” From the interpersonal to the societal, harm became something unanswerable and unquestionable. Not only was it wrong, even hubristic, to hold someone to account, but it was a greater violation to ask the perpetrator to consider their behavior. Experiencing any consequence became the same as facing the worst of them.
This is how we had comedians whose humor has aged out of relevance decrying the disinterest of new generations to their old jokes. This is how billionaires, insulated from every consequence by their inhumane wealth, demand not only outsize space in public life but love for it regardless of what they do or say. This is how news sources can lie, distortions can be presented as truths, abusers can call themselves victims, and the “problem” will be the people who call it out.
In severing the expectation of accountability to others, we’ve built a society where many aren’t accountable even to themselves. Lie, cheat, steal, hurt, use, abuse, and discard other people: It doesn’t matter as long as you get what you want. Others’ expectations, their sense of right and wrong, collective notions of integrity are all unnecessary encumbrances. There is no moral standard except what you can get away with, and we’ve made it possible to get away with a lot.
The flip side of our unfettered self-interest is the permission to act. We have fed the moral hazard with every promise to “look forward, not back” or to find common ground with rule-breakers as if we are operating under the same terms. While some of us are attacked for seeking justice at all, it is more alarming that few in power seek it on our behalf. It is untenable to have the efforts of impunity represented in government while the causes of fairness are not.
Helped along by transgressors, we deflect and demur, making offenses smaller, convincing ourselves that we can simply lead by example, assured that if we never wield power, we are safe from abusing it. If the offenders cry about being imposed upon, then the answer is to do less. If they howl about censorship, then we offer silence. If they cry at the consequences, we promise permission. Rather than act, we ponder, negotiate, convene, and study, and depart with the consensus that we will surely do something once we have figured out exactly the right thing to do. And in the meantime, the opponents of fairness rig the rules in their favor.
This collective inaction against consequences has dire implications for every aspect of our lives, but especially our government. Yes, this moral vacuity makes it easier for harmful forces to organize and coordinate, allows offensive laws to suborn and oppress marginalized people, and permits the perversion of principles into incomprehensible doublespeak. But it also means that any effort to undo this damage, to guard the vulnerable, to provide structure and justice will have to be much more expansive and radical to solve the problems.
We have never had true accountability in this country, and it’s possible that we never will. There are harms and crimes—historic and ongoing—that cannot truly be repaired or redeemed. Our answers to the questions of fairness, dignity, equality under the law will be messy, difficult, and likely perceived as distorted or unfair if they successfully redress old wrongs. We will never receive universal consensus because we have never operated under it. We are too varied, diverse, multifaceted to agree completely, and that is our gift. We were not asked in this compact to create a perfect union; we were only asked to try.
So whatever we attempt in the goal of creating a shared culture of responsibility to each other, it is worth doing. Our inaction, our restraint, our devotion to nuance over initiative are not graces but impositions. We already know from histories here and abroad, that all evil needs to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
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