Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Corrupt Politics

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something”
-          Willie Stark, in All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren

Nowhere is the space between moral principle and social experience as evident as in politics. Machiavelli, an astute observer of the politics of his day, concluded that the prince who sincerely adhered to the principles of Christian morality would be bound to fail. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a meditation on the inescapability of sin in the realm of human action, features a twentieth century politician who is ineffectual as an aspiring leader until he gives himself over to compromise and corruption.  The accomplishments of Warren’s Willie Stark spring from his corruption and when he attempts to return to virtue he brings about his own downfall. The narrator of Warren’s novel, Jack Burden, becomes more than a detached observer and enters the world only when he realizes that there are no morally pure human beings. I don’t believe that Warren meant to advocate the Machiavellian solution and put principle aside, but he did recognize the irreconcilability of our ideals and our lives and he used politics as the illustration of that irreconcilability.
Aaron Broussard
These thoughts occur to me as a local politician, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard has decided to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and theft in office. Broussard is the latest in a long string of Louisiana public officials to face criminal charges, and more prominent figures will follow him, probably very soon. It often seems like campaigns-elections-offices-prison is almost a standard career path in this state.
I don’t approve of Broussard’s wrong-doings, or those of his fellow politicos. But I don’t see him as an evil person and I have sympathy for him. His crimes were the types of moral compromises that many people might make. He created a phony job for his girlfriend, later his wife, and he took bribes from a parish contractor. He probably committed some other crimes, but I’m sure that none of them were vicious or violent. During his 35-years in public life, Broussard acquired a reputation as a man who could get things done, a real-life Willie Stark.
Temptation, of course, is one reason that politicians fall from grace. They find themselves in places in which it is easy for them to divert resources to themselves and their friends. But I think there is more to it than that. The interests of individuals and groups are the raw materials of a politician’s work. Getting those interests to combine depends on negotiating and compromising with the people who hold the interests. Do ut des, I give so that you will give, is the fundamental rule of political action. You have to get the different players on your side, and force alone will rarely work, even in those circumstances in which you actually have power. The more another player has to give, the more you need to give to get cooperation. An effective politician is by definition a compromiser and a deal-maker, and it is often hard to tell exactly at what point the compromises and the deals cross the line of acceptability. The ethical ambiguity makes it all the easier to give in to temptation.
So, I’d say, go ahead impose penalties on politicians who break the law. But let’s recognize that they are just flawed human beings in a world full of flawed human beings. Beyond that, though, I’d take the moral dilemma of political life as an illustration of why we cannot use political means to change our world. There are no leaders who can rise above their own human frailties, no institutions that are not permeated by competing goals and desires.

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