MY TURN: Foley Affair Points Up Larger Problems
Putting aside its moral and ethical aspects, the handling of the Mark Foley affair epitomizes a fundamental weakness in the governance of this country.
I would characterize this weakness as the pursuit of result without concern for process -- here, protecting a member of the club rather than the institution.
In seeking the implementation of contentious public policies and programs, we as a nation have shown an increasing willingness to accept the plainly unethical or immoral means often being employed. We have done so based largely on the rationalization -- "that's how the system has always worked" or "both parties do it" -- rationales no more ethically or morally acceptable than the fact that "sinning happens."
By their very nature, the diverse interest groups that constitute the body politic put their interests above those of the nation. Only when enough voices of protest emerge from the actions of special interests do the means they employ get examined -- the mild efforts to reform campaign financing being the most recent example.
If history can be relied upon, the gross excesses being revealed in the Abramoff lobbying case will be accompanied by a clamor for reform that at best addresses the intolerable, leaving in place an ethical norm only modestly better than outrageous.
Duplicity has become a constant in the practice of politics and the formulation of legislation. Examples abound, and the one noted herein is offered not because of the political party involved but only because of its currency -- when power or votes are on the line, both of our major political parties will almost certainly find that expediency coincides with virtue.
The case at hand is a bill the Congress just passed -- amid a blare of trumpets -- to erect a 700-mile fence along our southern border. Although having previously been opposed to the fence, but now sensitive to the politics involved, the president prominently signed the bill at a site near the border.
The Congress then promptly passed a bill for funding construction of the fence and numerous other projects aimed at halting illegal immigration. Therein, without trumpet nor even a whisper, the president was given authority to spread the money among those projects as he saw fit.
By this bit of legislative trickery, those congressmen needing a fence for re-election can cite their role in bringing it to fruition, and the president can, post-election, see to it that the fence to which he was opposed is never built or is scaled down to a token level.
The larger question in all of this is: Why do we, as citizens of a democracy, tolerate being duped by those running for office who will, upon their election, assuredly mislead us as to their actions and motives? The assertion that this state of affairs is as old as the Republic is not a satisfactory response. We lack the will, not the ability, to demand more.
Ignorance is one of the reasons we don't care. A new poll regarding the Foley affair found that 58 percent of the people polled did not know who Dennis Hastert was, even though, as speaker of the House, he is second in line for the presidency.
Not surprisingly, a report commissioned by the Department of Education found that only 25 percent of high school students were "proficient" in civics. If one were to judge on the basis of the low levels of high school achievement in other areas of study such as geography, "proficiency" may mean no more than knowing there are three levels of government in this country and that each possesses legislative, executive, and judicial components -- that do something or other. One can only wonder what the other 75 percent understand, if anything.
While the deficiencies in our practice of politics are perennial topics of conversation, discussion has rarely been turned into fundamental reform. So, by and large, it can be said that the populace is getting what its lethargy warrants. Seldom do much more than 50 percent of those eligible vote in a presidential election, and the turnout for state and local elections is lower still.
The only people capable of effecting change in the system -- requiring more truth in campaigning, establishing higher ethical standards for those elected, and refusing to accept deceit and chicanery in legislative and executive actions -- are the 50 percent who vote.
The foundation of any effort to effect change must be an acknowledgement that self-interest is not a synonym for virtue and that political advantage is not to be valued more highly than political probity. Admittedly, it is naive to hope that changes of this order are probable. But one can hope for change when, at some point, even the most lethargic of the populace realize that, figuratively speaking, their pockets are being picked.
J. Thomas Tidd lives in Pinehurst.
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