The Origin and Anatomy of Political Scandal

The extent to which we decide to trust our elected officials is the decision that needs to be made within the context of recent political scandal.

In this country and the United States, the last six weeks have seen extraordinary and breathtaking abuses of power by government officials.

Here in Canada, this has taken the form of financial malfeasance. Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin misappropriated several tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for their own — and by appearances explicitly partisan — reasons.

They are in the process of being held accountable by our political institutions and media. The Prime Minister — who at one point unreservedly defended these people — has backed off.

This has occurred because it became apparent that his own office was intimately involved in this wrongdoing. Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, wrote a $90,000 cheque to Duffy to pay back these expenses. A media firestorm followed once this was revealed, and Wright has since resigned.

Coupled with the fabulously unethical use of robocalls, and the still-developing story of a million dollar slush fund, it is clear that all is not well in our Conservative government.

While these trends are disturbing, potentially illegal, and certainly disconcerting, they pale in comparison to the scale of abuse in the United States.

The IRS was complicit in a scheme to impair the development of Tea Party groups. Resources were devoted to tapping Associated Press communications. And, most recently, Glenn Greenwald with the Guardian and reporters at the Washington Post have exposed an NSA dragnet that spies on electronic and telephone communication.

Greenwald told ABC’s George Stephanopolous this morning that there is more to come.

Of course, this is not just damn fine reporting, or a major exposé of government wrongdoing. It could also all be perfectly legal — though this ignores the fact that the law establishes the baseline of moral behaviour, not what the standard ought to be.

What it shows is that there are fundamental questions to be asked about how much we trust our respective governments.

The responses I’ve heard and seen are basically: “this really shocks you?” And “so what, government is keeping us safe, and besides, I’m willing to trade privacy for security.”

That’s all fine and good — but it’s wrong, because it fails to address that fundamental question about the social contract.

What the balance is between privacy and security is obviously an important question, but the more important one is what to make of it.

The last decade has seen a fundamental reorientation in the level of trust we place in government. Conor Friedersdorf pointed out recently in The Atlantic that even if current officials are trustworthy, officials may not always remain so benevolent.

This isn’t a argument about how tyranny is inevitable. It is an attempt to grab America by the shoulders, give it a good shake, and say: Yes, it could happen here, with enough historical amnesia, carelessness, and bad luck. We’re not special. Our voters won’t always pick good men and women to represent us. Some good women will be corrupted by power, and some bad men will slip through. Other democracies have degraded into quasi-authoritarian states; they didn’t expect that to happen until it was too late to stop. We have safeguards to prevent us from following in their footstep. Stop casting them off because you fear al-Qaeda. Stop tempting fate.

With that in mind, the question is not one of right and wrong, of whistleblowers vs. state secrets, or even of privacy.

It’s a question of what we want to *let* officials do, elected or otherwise. It’s hardly surprising that this happens when we’ve collectively acquiesced, not rights, but the expectation that we have the ability to hold governments to account.

The line in the House of Commons has been “move along, nothing to see here.” The same in the U.S.

When we have accepted that for 10 years, is it surprising that our malaise has been repaid with abuse?

Hardly.

But that doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean it can’t be arrested and turned back.

 

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