Political corruption is one aspect of a more general immorality. If we want to tackle it, we have to understand how it works.
Sober, personal virtues of honesty, willpower, honor, and high-mindedness have given way to “the most important single factor, the effective personality,” which “commands attention by charm,” and “radiates self-confidence.” Sarah Palin is a prime example of the phenomenon. Personal relations – image, in short – have become part of public relations, a sacrifice of self-hood on a personality market, to the sole end of individual success in the corporate way of life. As in Palin’s case, the individual does not have to have a positive, or even coherent agenda. They sell themselves as stars.
In the corporate era, economic relations are impersonal – and executives feel little personal responsibility (witness NAFTA, GATT and the WTO). Within the corporate worlds of business, war making and politics, the private conscience is attenuated and immorality is institutionalized. Many of the problems of white-collar crime and of relaxed public morality, of high-priced vice and fading personal integrity, are problems of this structural immorality. Its acceptance is an essential feature of our mass society.
In economic and political institutions the corporate rich now wield enormous power, but they have never had to win the moral consent of those over whom they hold this power. The general immorality, the general weakening of older values, and the organization of irresponsibility have not involved public crisis; they result from creeping indifference and a silent hollowing out.
The images of the powerful that prevail are of the elite as celebrities. They share it with the frivolous or sultry creatures of the world of celebrity, which is a dazzling blind of their true power.
Two things are needed in a democracy: articulate and knowledgeable publics, and political leaders who, if not men of reason, are at least reasonably responsible to such knowledgeable publics as exist. Such a public and such leaders – either of power or of knowledge – do not now prevail, and knowledge does not now have democratic relevance in America.
The lack of knowledge as an experience among the elite ties in with the malign tendency of the expert, not only as fact but also as legitimization. The trend has been abdication of debate and the collapse of opposition under the easy slogan of bipartisanship. Public relations displace reasoned argument; manipulation and undebated decisions of power replace democratic authority.
Status, no longer rooted in local communities, follows the big hierarchies. Status follows big money, even if it has a touch of the gangster. Status follows power, even if it be without background. Below, in the mass society, old moral and traditional barriers to status break down and Americans look to standards of excellence above them, to model themselves and judge self-esteem.
Those in the higher circles are not truly representative; their high position is not a result of moral virtue. They sit in the seats of the high and the mighty selected and formed by the means of power, the sources of wealth, and the mechanics of celebrity. They are not shaped by nationally responsible parties that debate openly and clearly the issues this nation now so unintelligently confronts. They are not held in check by a plurality of voluntary associations, which connect debating publics with the pinnacles of decision. Commanders of power unequaled in history, they have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility.
In a 1997 poll, 76% of Americans distrusted government at all levels. To any pollster, 24% approval spells big trouble. We experience its outfall, in part, as an accelerated and often irrational growth of nimbyism as people rebuff and turn away from an apparently indifferent and insensitive leadership. They seek other solutions. It’s also obvious that if leaders consistently fail to effectively engage a true majority of citizens in solving community problems, but defer almost exclusively to any exclusive group, they do not promote community, representational or democratically participative government. In the absence of genuine community building and true citizen involvement, the solution to an expanding, disaffected underclass may only be more police officers, more prison construction and tougher sentencing.
University of Wisconsin law professor Joel Rogers says, “Public opinion in the United States is conventionally mapped on a liberal-conservative axis understood to run from government do-gooders without values on one end to free marketeering rich people without hearts at the other end. Most people in America place themselves in the middle. They don’t find either end particularly attractive. Today, the fight isn’t really between liberals and conservatives but between the workers/consumers/citizens who actually want the economy to reflect our values and those who want to keep things the way they are with a few irresponsible corporations running the country for their own benefit. In that fight we can win. It’s our country. Let’s run it for the people.”
We cannot make minor process changes, but must deal with the value system, which powers our economic engine to the divorce of all other concerns. Social Darwinism supposedly died after striking U.S. Steel workers were murdered by union-busting toughs while Andrew Carnegie played golf in Scotland. Carnegie turned a blind eye to what his managers were doing at the Homestead Mines. It seemed good business to lower labor costs. It got out of hand. Carnegie learned that individual action, even when the most rational and best for the individual, may be a terrible disaster for other individuals.
Our national debate has become timid. The tyranny of experts disguises our true best interest. So what can one do about all this? Here’s a starter list:
- Stick up for your rights – your own integrity matters more than loyalty to a negative cause.
- Stimulate sympathy – there are social and political reasons for what we do. The social reasons create the greatest measure of self-identification and response.
- Speak only from fact – listen, especially when you don’t agree.
- Use a variety of sources of information; try to understand the other view.
- Act. Do something positive everyday.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves.”
There are legitimate and good reasons why we must participate in our own governance. We either use our rights, or we lose them.
- John Legry, (paraphrase: C. Wright Mills, Joel Rogers, and others).
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