Thursday, October 28, 2010


If one begins, as Aristotle recommends, with a definition, then we might define corruption as the a person in a group or organization making decisions (i.e., using his power) for his own benefit rather than for the benefit of the whole. Corrupt behavior, therefore, which sacrifices the good others to one's own interests, is considered craven and contemptible. The opposite of corruption is heroism, since the hero is almost defined as one who sacrifices his own good--sometimes to the point of his life--for the good of others. One need only look at the roots of our culture to see how much Western society values the heroic and despises the opportunistic: from the self-serving behavior of Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad, which causes a complicated skein of bitterness and tragedy, to the heroic, sacrificial love of Christ which resolves the central problem of humanity, Western society has always valued the hero and despised the corrupt. One might observe a paradox in this matter: Western society is indeed individualistic, but the individualism that we seem most to value is that which distinguishes the individual who gives the most to the most.

American society, more than perhaps any other, seems to disdain corruption. If the definition of corruption offered above is accurate, then the Declaration of Independence is not only primarily a denunciation of corruption--a long list of the tyrannical decisions made by King George for his own benefit rather than the benefit of the colonists--but also an assertion of heroic self-sacrifice since at the end despite all odds the signers pledge to give up all they personally value to the point of their lives in order to end this corruption. And if the Constitution, as has often been observed, is a document that prevents the accumulation of power in the hands of a few individuals by encouraging decentralization and at times conflict, then what is that document but a great plan to make corruption as difficult as possible?

Earlier in modern history, the accumulation of power that made corruption possible (nay, even likely, though not inevitable) was aided by a virtually monolithic news media that was relatively left wing. (I have often been amused by how very quickly those who told me in the 1980s that there was no such thing as media bias have claimed with horror that Fox News is biased.) But with increasing rapidity, the new media (this is such a commonplace that I yawn writing it) have decentralized the production and distribution of news, and the American people now have multiple sources of information, which allows them to make more informed decisions about politics--and in particular allows them to see when an individual, group, or organization is corrupt, i.e., acting primarily in their own interest, rather than in the interest of others.

And this ability to interrogate those in power has made corruption less possible in recent years. As the sheer power of the government grows and therefore the temptation to corruption increases, simultaneously the risk of corrupt behavior becomes more pronounced. It is now difficult to remember, but the elections of 1994, which swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives for the first time in half a century, was a response to the massive corruption, epitomized by the House Post Office scandal. And people heard about this corruption through the new medium of talk radio, which mercilessly flogged the issue of Democrat corruption. Republicans themselves grew so used to Congressional power that they in turn grew corrupt. The practice of earmarks, for example, is a precise example of corruption--the spending of money primarily to further the career of the person casting the vote to spend the money--and such spending, along with other examples of corruption, such as the sexual misbehavior of powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill, met condign reproof in the elections of 2006.

Now, in 2010, we have many pundits and prognosticators who explain to us the various psychological reasons why voters are moving in droves towards the Republican Party. But it is not possible to believe that we have a massive ideological shift in two short years. The reasons are complex, of course, but surely a major (if not the major) reason for the current polls is that Americans have grown impatient with the corruption they see in Democratic Washington. When legislators routinely refused to listen to the expressed will of the people and voted for health-care reform in a patently corrupt process in which special favors were given to some representatives to secure their votes and assure victory, people saw it as an abuse of power. When people hear Candidate Obama decrying holding enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and then see him continue the practice, or speak of the immorality of rendition and then continue (if not increase) the practice, they begin to get the feeling that this man who seemed during the campaign to use words to heal, transcend, inspire (in short to use language for the benefit of others) was in fact using words simply to increase his own power.

The fitting end to such corruption is that power be taken away from the corrupt who use it for their own benefit. This is the real meaning of the Tea Party. It is a manifestly anticorrupt movement. It has no individual or group of individuals who benefit from its power: it elects unlikely people who are expected to govern not in their own interest but for the good of those who elected them. This is why the Tea Partiers prefer candidates who pledge to eschew earmarks. This is why the ancestors of the Tea Partiers liked term limits: because those too prevent the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the few. And, finally, this is why the watchword of the season is "the Constitution." That is short-hand for promoting a system that limits corruption and encourages genuine, heroic statesmanship that sacrifices personal advantage to the good of the governed.

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