Recently, I read a journalist's account of the Watergate scandal. It was actually a bundle of inter-related illegal acts and conspiracies that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. One of the things that struck me was the astonishing and complete lack of morality among "All the President's Men". These were the most powerful men in the country, most were lawyers, and all considered themselves to be religious in one way or another. Yet they acted in total disregard for the law and for basic morals. They committed a series of crimes with no compunction -- burglary, theft, bribery, illegal wiretapping, violations of campaign finance laws, and obstruction of justice. The amount of lying was breathtaking -- a systematic campaign of perjury and knowingly false public statements. They never asked themselves "is this right?" but only cared about "will this work".
I was a teenager when all this happened, and I remember following the stories with great interest. But I didn't appreciate the sheer scope of all of it until I read this book. And, naturally, it led me to reflect on the current political climate, and on the desperate need for "political morality".
There are two components to political morality. One is the personal morals of those who hold public office -- are they people of integrity who can be counted on to obey essential principles of honesty, financial responsibility, lack of self-interest, fairness, seriousness, humility, etc. I utterly reject the notion, which is usually attributed to Macchiavelli, that rulers are not bound by ordinary moral laws, but are free to do things that would be illegal or immoral if done by ordinary citizens. No matter what public office one holds, the Ten Commandments still apply, and personal virtue will lead to good government.
The other component is constitutional morality -- do they respect the rule of law, the process of law-making and governance, the rights of citizens, the notion that nobody is above or outside of the law, etc. I'm not as cynical as most people think, and I actually believe that a sound legal process will lead on the whole to sound results. I believe that the principles embodied in our Constitution -- separation of powers, limits on the authority of the government, checks and balances, protection of fundamental rights, and federalism -- provide a rich and fertile soil for living a peaceful and just life.
These elements of political morality were utterly lacking in the Nixon Administration. The Watergate scandals and their threat to the constitutional order were the direct result. The similar lack of political morality in the current climate fills me with dread for the future of our Republic.
At all levels of politics, we are repeatedly presented with -- and we routinely elect -- candidates who have a propensity for falsehood, whose financial affairs are deeply suspect, who treat people as instruments to be used and then discarded, and who seem obsessed with personal power rather than selfless public service. It has become unremarkable for candidates to affirm that they will use their power to commit gross moral evils, like abortion on demand, torture, aggressive war on civilians, and racial and religious discrimination. Candidates openly show disdain for the proper Constitutional process and promise to rule unilaterally by decree. And candidates and political advocates make crystal clear that they will use the levers of power to punish their enemies, and all those who disagree with their ideology.
The men who built and established our Republic understood very well the need for political morality. George Washington, who was an exemplar of this, said, "Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government," and "Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people." John Adams, who was no stranger to the rough and tumble of partisan politics, said "Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics."
The current state of affairs in our political system would horrify the Founding Fathers. They should equally horrify us.
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