The Emperor Theodosius does public penance for his own scandal before the bishop St. Ambrose.

Ray Pennings recently wrote a thoughtful reflection at The Cardus Daily on the recent surge in (exposed) political scandals, Canadian and American. He bemoans that “the current version of democracy isn’t looking all that attractive right now,” writing,

It is discouraging to read stories regarding blatant ethical questions involving the President of the United States, Prime Minister of Canada, the Canadian Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of Canada’s largest city on the same day. Although the natures of these purported scandals are quite different from each other, the bottom line reduces to the same — can we count on our leaders to carry out their office with the basics of integrity and transparency? Whatever the facts are regarding the specific cases, at a minimum it must be said that those involved in each of these cases have been less than forthcoming in explaining themselves. If the events themselves don’t merit the scandal label, the lack of explanation almost certainly does.

To summarize, even apart from the scandals themselves, the proclivity of politicians not to be forthright about the details is itself a scandal.

Pennings continues,

Whatever partisan likes or dislikes I have regarding the four leaders presently in question, it stretches credibility to suggest that they all have simply tossed their principles once they achieved their office. So what is it? Why [does] the compass that guides decision-making seem different when viewed from the perspective of leadership?

Among other answers, he notes the complication of “the basic rule of democratic politics — winning is necessary in order to achieve your agenda. The imperative of power results in clouded judgement where the smaller means are justified by the greater ends.”

There is something here, perhaps, even more pessimistic than James Buchanan’s “Politics without Romance.” Buchanan writes,

At best electoral politics places limits on the exercise of discretionary power on the part of those who are successful in securing office. Re-election prospects tend to keep the self-interests of politicians within reasonable range of those of the median voter, but there is nothing to channel outcomes towards the needs of the non-median voting groups.

Buchanan perceives, correctly in my view, a problem with electoral politics failing to serve the minorities of society. However, when as Pennings observes, “the smaller means” to achieve one’s agenda “are justified by the greater ends,” it becomes difficult to tell if the self-interests or needs (not the same thing, I would add) of even the median voter are being met.

More to the point, to what extent is dishonest pandering to the median voter justified for the sake of ostensibly noble ends? And at what point does such dishonesty cloud even such “noble” aspirations, to the point where the only “greater end” pursued becomes the preservation of power? If none are immune to the corrupting tendency of power, and electoral politics has no longer proven effective at minimizing its effects, what more can be done?

Pennings highlights the dilemma, even for a well-intended politician:

Compared to the greater cause, many things seem trivial and a nuisance, and those who insist on them seem small-minded and petty. Everything becomes hyper-partisan. A confession that, “Yes, I’ve messed up and pledge to do better next time,” along with genuine contrition becomes politically difficult.

True, as Penning further notes,”There is no system of regulation which can manage to keep government on the ethical high road and few and far between are the leaders that are able to rise above the ethical landmines that tempt them.” Business as usual can and may continue until democracy loses all moral authority and the electorate lose all confidence in the elected. Politicians may continue to prove Lord Acton’s dictum over and over again until no one sees any value in democracy at all.

Yet, I wonder if, perhaps, this political difficulty is more a matter of perception. That is, the more scandals crop up, the more respect people will have for a politician who appears to be honest about his/her mistakes. There is at least a moment of opportunity here. Might the opposite of “power tends to corrupt” also be true? Might weakness tend to restore?

I would suggest that, perhaps paradoxically, this might be the case, so long as a democratic people still possesses the power to forgive. Now, of course, such confessions could also be used for manipulation, perhaps to greater evil, but at the cost of even greater distrust from the electorate in the end.

On the other hand, the best way to be perceived as honest, remorseful, and repentant is to actually strive to be honest, remorseful, and repentant. And when an electorate is exhausted at scandal after scandal, one will quickly find that integrity itself will become the top interest of the median voter … so long as there are enough people left who care to vote, that is.

I do not think we have passed that point of no return yet, but unless we experience a revival of virtue among our politicians (and voting public, for that matter) — even if far from perfect — the American experiment in ordered liberty may, I fear, simply fizzle out in the end, neutralized by the scandal of corruption.


  • RogerMcKinney

    Penning should read more of the writings of the founding fathers. They were very skeptical of politicians. Penning seems to want to believe that the public is smart enough to choose only angels in elections, or maybe that getting elected turns one into an angel. Politicians can be no more ethical than the people who elect them.

    Penning also needs to read more from the public choice school of politics by James Buchanan. Buchanan shows that politicians are motivated by self-interest, just as are voters.It’s naive to think politicians care about the public good.

    Democracy is God’s most clever judgments. If voters are godly, they will choose wise and godly politicians. But when the people turn ungodly, they vote for leaders who will cheat, steal, oppress them, and kill them in wars, just as God warned the kings of Israel will do.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Penning should read more of the writings of the founding fathers. They were very skeptical of politicians. Penning seems to want to believe that the public is smart enough to choose only angels in elections, or maybe that getting elected turns one into an angel. Politicians can be no more ethical than the people who elect them.

    Penning also needs to read more from the public choice school of politics by James Buchanan. Buchanan shows that politicians are motivated by self-interest, just as are voters.It’s naive to think politicians care about the public good.

    Democracy is God’s most clever judgments. If voters are godly, they will choose wise and godly politicians. But when the people turn ungodly, they vote for leaders who will cheat, steal, oppress them, and kill them in wars, just as God warned the kings of Israel will do.

  • Pingback: Steynian 469rd | Free Canuckistan!