Why Politicians Betray Our Trust: Swollen Egos, Varied Temptations
A public figure does have responsibilities beyond those to his family. He owes something to the people who worked for him, who set aside other opportunities to serve him. He owes honesty to the people who contributed to his campaign, and he has the further obligation not do anything to embarrass them. Last, but far from least, is his obligation to the public, to the people who elected him. They, and not the fatcats whose gifts come in envelopes without return addresses, are his clients.
So why do they do it? Why does official misconduct and abuse of office occur again and again? We know that much of it remains undiscovered, but the examples that have become public in the last several years have been enough to shake the voters’ confidence in public officials.
We offer four reasons – not excuses – for political corruption:
1. Opportunity. When people who hold office are offered money or services or freebies by other people who are their new friends, many accept. Some people are honest because they are no chances to be dishonest without committing embezzlement or larceny.
2. Where people are used to receiving privileges, cars and drivers, unverified expense accounts, exemption from traffic rules, etc., they begin to live in an atmosphere of entitlement. They gradually come to believe that they are different from regular people, and entitled to whatever they are given – by anyone. The car and driver have the unintended effect of isolating the executive or legislator for the many people one might encounter on public transit or on the streets. In addition, incumbents are invited to private events, sponsored by lobbyists or other favor-seekers, at which they are fed and watered (with alcohol). One can become so accustomed to eating and drinking for free that to have to pay for a meal becomes an insult.
3. There is some ambiguity in the universe of campaign contributions, and how they affect the behavior of the recipient. On the one hand, people are encouraged to donate to candidates they believe in, whose views they support (and vice versa). However, if a candidate, when elected, does what his donors demand, his action could be considered a payoff, especially if it applies to a matter of local concern. There is a substantial difference between a treaty with a foreign nation and a zoning change. But when the treaty involved is NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), there are considerable local implications because of different impacts on various areas.
In addition to cash contributions, support can come in manpower (often contributed by trade unions), the use of telephone banks, the printing and distribution of campaign literature, or support from 527 political organizations that are theoretically independent but in reality symbiotic with a candidate’s campaign.
Still, as a simple rule for politicians, if you put the money you raise in your own pocket, or give it to your wife, mistress or children, born in or out of wedlock, you can go to jail if you are caught. Very few public officials have seen the inside of a prison for that particular indiscretion. There are, however, all manner of intermediate expenditures – you can ask Sarah Palin about that – which could be interpreted as either official or personal.
4. In part because of the long and wearying trail from accusation to incarceration, one cannot regard punishment as a certainty or even a probability. Even when a wrongdoer is caught and convicted, there is considerable sentiment that losing the office is sufficient penalty, not to mention public disgrace, loss of reputation and job opportunities. Hasn’t he suffered enough, one may ask. There is also the prospect that the sentencing judge may have been a colleague of the accused, or have mutual friends, or come from the same circle, or softly say to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
To sum up, when you are elected or appointed to high office, your world changes. People treat you differently. They remember you after they meet you. New friends appear. Old friends reappear. You hire people to help you, and those people have needs of their own. You find yourself in charge of an enterprise which you may not know how to manage. Your decisions mean a great deal, financially, to other people. They want to be helpful to you. They live by Rule 21-O, “One hand washes the other.”
You also have political leaders telling you how to vote, and threatening you if you repeatedly fail to do as they ask. So you do. The problem then is why should they pay you when they are paying the man who tells you what to do. Perhaps you could split the contribution. But that is another crime.
Don’t forget your taxes, either. The Internal Revenue Service may be looking at you more closely now that you are a big name with a bigger income. And the campaign finance reports. You have to hire people to fill them out, and you are accountable for their errors. Not to mention the newspapers complaining about any little irregularity that snooping reporters may happen to find.
Sometimes you wonder why you went into this line of work. You are reassured that so many people like, respect, even admire you. The trappings of office befit you. Why, however, do you earn so much less than the lobbyists and the lawyers who are constantly asking you to do things for their clients? Is it not a great injustice that they can earn more a day than you do in a week? And they don’t have to go out to drafty halls making speeches to people who aren’t even listening. Why must you go to funerals of people you never met? Deliver eulogies to strangers. Doing this in bad weather, you could catch a terrible cold.
And on top of all these indignities, you have people on both sides of the river making fun of you. They should be in your shoes.
As a matter of fact, at least one of them has.
Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@nycivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.