But Roger Z left a comment to my last post that caused the wheels to turn another quarter rotation, and I thought I'd explore the ramifications briefly before going on to other stuff. Roger said:
I think this is the first step on the way to the meme that "everyone does it." Blago goes to jail for graft? Heck, it's universal, it's not THAT big a deal. You can see where, if the public buys into that, it might be a useful defense in the near future for certain media darlings.I think the "everybody does it" defense is an outright threat to our democratic system, actually. It works like this: one side gets really, really paranoid about all the "dirty tricks" the other side plays--say, regarding voter fraud. That side becomes convinced that the game is totally corrupt, and no one can win an election unless they successfully rig it. So, justifying their actions by saying everybody does it, they start rigging elections. Then the other side notices that the elections are being stolen, and they can't get satisfaction in the courts, so they decide that they have to rig the system just to stay viable as a political party.
Pretty soon there's enough corruption going on in the electoral system that the legitimate votes don't actually decide the elections anymore, and--by definition--you no longer have a democracy. The belief that "everybody does it" became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And this doesn't just occur around elections; it's anything sleazy that anyone in power might do, from selling offices, to selling influence, to auditing their opponents....
But in all of this, there is an opportunity, if the electorate is alert enough to seize it. So consider this post as my little part in raising the alert.
How do you tell apart the real reformers, the real clean-government advocates, from those who just use the "reform" brand to gain votes?
After all, there is a political victory to be won in taking down the crooks in the other party. If a Republican gets in legal trouble, you can count that all the Dems in the world will get in front of the cameras and denounce the rapscallion, with grave countenance and stern voices. But it's impossible not to notice that the Dems in question have more of an interest than just high-minded defense of ethics in our Republic; if a Republican goes down, it typically gives more power to the Dems. This obviously leads to questions in the public--are these guys actually serious about reforms, or are they just opportunists looking to profit by the fall of their adversaries?
And of course, it's not just the Republicanss who get in trouble and the Dems who claim to be reformers. We're seeing the flipside of things now with the Blagojevic(D) scandal in Illinois.
So, how do you tell apart the real reformers from the opportunists?
Here's one sign: Real reformers are willing to take down the crooks in their own party, and are willing to make real personal sacrifices to do so. That is, they want their own party to be the "Party of Reform", so much so that they're willing to drive out its corrupt elements, even if it gives a congressional majority to the other party, and even if it makes them a pariah in their own party.
Now, not everyone who takes on enemies in their own party is a reformer. In some cases, it just means they're even more opportunistic than everyone else. After all, some of the worst dictators in history started out by driving out all potential rivals from the parties they eventually headed.
But, if a person has never butted heads with the leadership of their own party over ethics issues, it either means that he or she hasn't been in politics very long, or it means he or she can't legitimately be called a reformer.
Considering this standard, the identifications of the real reformers--the real ethics crusaders--in the last election is left as an exercise to the reader. With one major exception, that is:
One of the big reasons that Sarah Palin was so popular within the Republican base, one of the things that put her on the political map in the first place--and brought her to the attention of McCain--was precisely that she took on the Don Youngs, and Ted Stevens's, and Frank Murkowskis of the Alaska Republican party. She primaried a sitting Republican governor who had become notorious for corrupt practices, and she won. Now, the charge has been made that she's actually one of those opportunists who knows how to play their opponent's flaws for personal gain; and I'm not going to try to refute that argument here. But nevertheless, any candidate who wishes to claim the mantle of Ethical Reformer has to do the kinds of things that Sarah Palin did: they have to take on the corrupt people on their own side. If they haven't done that, they have no legitimate claim to make to being anything but an opportunist on ethical issues.
As I said, I think this is one of the reasons that Palin has remained so popular within the Republican base, even after the November 4th election loss. There are a lot of Conservatives out there who have become absolutely disgusted with their party--the orgy of earmarking, the bailouts, the quid pro quos. There is a sense that the elected officials of the party, fearing the party's sliding popularity, threw out their principles, and tried to hold on to their jobs by using tax money to bribe their constituents. As a result, there was a big chunk of the Republican base that felt betrayed, and many were planning on sitting this election out to teach the party a lesson.
And then Palin came along. And with her came the implicit promise, to those disaffected Republicans, that she would clean house. And not primarily by taking on the Democrats; she was popular among the Republican base because she had a reputation for taking on the Republicans. The fact is, the Republican base wants the Republicans to be the Party of Ethics, and when the Party falls short of its ideals, the base gets very angry, and very discouraged. Palin gave the 'Pubs hope that the party would be cleaned up and put back in order.
And if she keeps butting heads with the party leadership over ethical issues, she'll be back in 2012--and will be a force.
Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. The takeaway is: if you want reform, you have to look at a candidate's willingness to bite his or her own party. The most ethical candidates are those who try to keep their own homes clean before they try to clean up everyone else's. And if a candidate hasn't done that, then their ethics claims need to be taken as only so much hot air.