Anthony Weiner, Gov. McDonnell, Mayor Filner and the Rest: Degrading Democracy, Tainting Leadership

Hey, Mayor Filner, if San Diegans decide they have a proble being led by a serial sexual harasser, you can run for Mayor of New York!

Hey, Mayor Filner, if San Diegans decide they have a problem being led by a serial sexual harasser, you can run for Mayor of New York!

The mandate for leaders and potential leaders who have engaged in blatantly dishonest, corrupt, undignified or otherwise unethical conduct to remove themselves from office or consideration for office is not that, as hundreds of foolish pundits (like this guy) will try to convince you, hypocrites with a keyboard or a vote falsely pretend that such conduct is unique. There are two justifications for the unethical to resign from office, both undeniable and ancient. I have written enough, for now, about the first—that such conduct demonstrates untrustworthiness, the quality a leader must not have— and want to focus on the second, which is this: if they do not step down and away, such leaders and potential leaders mock the aspirations of democracy, insult its underlying hopes, and degrade, by their persistence, the standards of future leadership.

Once, this was thoroughly understood. Leaders who were exposed as lacking honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect for their own office resigned or withdrew from public life, as self-executed punishment and their last chance at redemption. Democracy, as John Adams wrote, is supposed to be a system that elevates the most accomplished, the most able, the most trusted and the most ethically sound to leadership, for obvious reasons. They are qualified to be leaders because, bluntly, they are better than the rest of us. They are also, because they are better, supposed to be capable of sacrifice and humility, and to recognize that power is a privilege, not a possession to be retained at all costs.

Because leaders have great prominence and, especially in a democracy, popularity, their ability to corrupt the young, their supporters, their party and the culture is dangerously potent, and a competent and trustworthy leader must recognize that. He or she must understand that when they embrace unethical conduct and behavior without shame, punishment, or acknowledgment of its nature, the leader models it for the nation and its population. Causing the public to “forgive” unethical conduct in a leader also forces that society to excuse that conduct, to shrug it off, and eventually, to accept it.

I hesitate to try to trace the origins of the gradual disappearance of this felt obligation of our leaders, but it is relatively recent. Certainly a major culprit is Bill Clinton: it is hard to imagine a previous President defiantly refusing to resign office after revelations like those about his activities with Monica were publicized, high crimes and misdemeanors aside. Barney Frank contributed to the phenomenon too, but both Clinton and Frank only spread the contagion from many earlier rogue mayors and local officials like Adam Clayton Powell, James Michael Curley, Marion Barry and others to the national level. American society as whole has moved, to its detriment, away from personal responsibility, honor and shame, and this is both a cause and a consequence of the new resilience of demonstrably unethical leaders.

The historic causes, at this point, are of only academic interest, The remedy, however, is obvious: renewed lack of tolerance for untrustworthy and unworthy democratic leaders, so that positions of elected leadership themselves are not so soiled and tainted that ethical men and women fear being stigmatized by seeking and achieving them. To state it in simple terms, if a sick, corrupt narcissist  like Anthony Weiner is deemed worthy of the mayorship in New York City, no better citizen should want to stand in his stench-filled shoes. Allowing Weiner, or Spitzer, or Barry…or Mark Sanford, or Charles Rangel, or David Vitter or Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell , or San Diego’s sexual predator Mayor Bob Filner to achieve or continue in office after they have shown contempt for their public trust, disrespect for their positions and shamed the system that elevated them, all but guarantees a steady decline in the quality of future leaders. If Anthony Weiner is fit to serve, who isn’t fit to serve?

At a certain point, I believe, such an abuse of democracy ultimately will lead to the death of it. If the public is too lazy and corrupt itself to insist  that its elected leaders be the best–most able, most trustworthy, most ethical— representatives of the nation and its ideals, we will eventually come to believe that the nation and its ideals are no better than the despicable, lying, corrupt people we elect. Increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that already, and the consequences of such cynicism are devastating and culturally fatal.

If there are no heroes, if the “best” are rotten and failures too, why not elevate the villains to power? In a nation with role models like Clinton, Weiner and McDonald, we will grow a bumper crop of villains.

We could hope that the parties would be responsible and refuse to nominate the Weiners, or to tolerate the McDonalds’s once they prove their lack of character, but it would be a futile hope. Only the people can insist on trustworthy leaders who enrich rather than degrade their positions and the system that grants them the privilege of power. It really is up to us to reverse this death spiral of the republic, accelerated by a public that seems not to care about the most basic quality of leadership: virtue.

12 thoughts on “Anthony Weiner, Gov. McDonnell, Mayor Filner and the Rest: Degrading Democracy, Tainting Leadership

  1. There is a verse from the Bible that I recall whenever I see people making excuses for politicians, sports figures and other celebrities. Psalm 12:8: “The wicked walk on every side when the vilest men are exalted.”

  2. Jack- Unfortunately people are NOT insisting on trustworthy leaders. On tonight’s 5 o’clock news, interviews regarding the latest Weiner debacle were conducted with residents throughout New York City. There were 3 camps of interviewees. Those who felt what Weiner did in his private life was his business, those who felt everyone deserves a second (or third chance), and those who said they would not vote for him based on his behavior.

    While this is not a scientific pole, it appears that two thirds of the population doesn’t care whether their elected officials are trustworthy. Maybe it’s simply no longer important. What other explanation could there be other than sheer stupidity?

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director
    Trust Across America – Trust Around the World
    http://www.trustacrossamerica.com

  3. At a certain point, I believe, such an abuse of democracy ultimately will lead to the death of it. If the public is too lazy and corrupt itself to insist that its elected leaders be the best–most able, most trustworthy, most ethical— representatives of the nation and its ideals, we will eventually come to believe that the nation and its ideals are no better than the despicable, lying, corrupt people we elect. Increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that already, and the consequences of such cynicism are devastating and culturally fatal.

    Well said. We do appear to be rolling down hill like a snowball headed for hell.

  4. From my view – and for what it’s worth – this seems to be a consequence of extreme partisanship.

    I think it might have grown out of the voting pattern seen in corrupt urban areas where machine politics has ruled for a century.

    Any sin by “our guy” is seen as just more lying propaganda from the opposition. No act by “their guy”, no matter how innocent, is seen as any less than grounds for tarring and feathering.

    In such an atmosphere, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, beat-ups from despicable behaviour. People will believe what they want to believe, and even worse, they will treat any allegation of wrongdoing, no matter how well-evidenced, as just more exaggeration and lies.

    Wolf has been cried far too often.

    • Bam, nailed it. The human imperative to form groups and teams leads people to identify with an individual or a party, decide that person/group will do the best job of “let me have it my way,” and from that point on they are the good guys.

      If the good guys do it it’s noble, or misunderstood, or a human failing and nobody’s perfect anyway. Any act by the other guys is, at best, a momentary flash of insight leading them to agree with the good guys before they go back to being actively malevolent and trying to ruin the country.

    • You said it well Zoe. I think that loyalty to party – perhaps more generally, “tribalism” – stemming from devaluation of individualism and exaltation of collectivism, has resulted in desensitizing too many of us to cognitive dissonance, which is essential for pursuit of truth and passion for truthfulness. To what extent the march of technology has caused, or resulted from, the rise in tribalism, I don’t know. I just know that we humans are still beholden to a most threatening and unforgiving natural environment beyond our control, and that despite all our efforts to “tame” the threats, it seems we are all ever more tenuously perched on the brink of dire hardships and snowballing societal regression.

      • I’m sorry. I wrote a terrible sentence above. I did mean to say that cognitive dissonance is essential for pursuit of truth and passion for truthfulness. I also did mean to say that tribalism has resulted in too many of us being insensitive to cognitive dissonance. Finally, I did mean to say that modern tribalism has stemmed from devaluation of individualism and exaltation of collectivism.

        I will forever presume that I am even a more lousy writer than I think I am, and a far more lousy writer than I know I am. There. That ought to set things straight.

        • “Finally, I did mean to say that modern tribalism has stemmed from devaluation of individualism and exaltation of collectivism.”

          Yet another little nugget of the wisdom of the Founding Father’s justified.

          They designed the Federal system to decentralize the vast majority of policy and legislative action to allow for much more localized control of things. The constitution enumerating a tiny number of powers to the national level of government.

          I imagine you would see a great deal less vicious divisiveness between the various parties as well as a great deal less party-line lock-step cohesion within the parties if we still adhered to the philosophy.

          But no, the eager chase of one of the dominant political parties to make EVERYTHING a national issue (as opposed to local and state issues where they can best be handled) followed by the other dominant party forced to counter EVERYTHING as a national issue has given rise to the exceedingly polarized and option-less political narrative we have today.

  5. Yes, tribalism is a huge problem, maybe the largest. And what are we offered? Diversity. Which is just a made up synomym for tribalism. Ugh.

  6. Pingback: Will we ever smile again…will we ever again be carefree… | D.J. Parsons's Blog

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