Culture

American Political Integrity Is in a State of Collapse

President Trump faces reporters on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
In the political version of the Iran–Iraq war, everyone has grievances and no one has virtues.

There is humor in almost everything, even the fast-motion collapse of honesty and integrity in American political discourse. On Tuesday the Washington Post (no, not the Onion) actually published a piece by former Obama national security-adviser Susan Rice titled, “When the White House twists the truth, we are all less safe.”

Yes, that happened. The woman who went on every major Sunday-morning news program after the Benghazi terrorist attacks and told flat-out falsehoods about its nature and motivations is now lecturing America about integrity. A person who was one of the chief national-security officials when the Obama administration was spinning false narratives about the Iran nuclear deal actually wrote this:

The foundation of the United States’ unrivaled global leadership rests only in part on our military might, the strength of our economy and the power of our ideals. It is also grounded in the perception that the United States is steady, rational, and fact-based. To lead effectively, the United States must maintain respect and trust. So, when a White House deliberately dissembles and serially contorts the facts, its actions pose a serious risk to America’s global leadership, among friends and adversaries alike.

Those words are true. Too bad she disregarded them when the truth was politically inconvenient.

It’s easy to single out disingenuous Democrats. You can do it all day. We’ve spent a week watching Demcrats spill crocodile tears over the Supreme Court, convinced that Neil Gorsuch was basically stealing Merrick Garland’s seat. Yet every sentient being in Washington knows that if the roles were reversed and, say, one of the liberal justices stepped down or passed away in the final months of a Republican presidency, the congressional Democrats would have behaved in the exact, same way, refusing to vote on any Supreme Court nominee the president put forward. In fact, none other than Joe Biden made that same promise more than 20 years before.

But here’s the problem — Democrats can do the same thing to Republicans, and it gets worse every day. The president and his team have repeatedly issued false denials about contacts with Russians, and the president himself keeps tweeting allegations and assertions that are most charitably described as incomplete, imprecise, and sometimes just outright wrong. Even when he’s “vindicated,” it’s often a strange kind of vindication, where his actual words were wrong, but something still happened. For example, wiretapping becomes “incidental collection.” Millions of illegal votes becomes millions of illegal registrations.

Tribalism can be just as corrupting for a coal miner in Kentucky as it can be for a ‘deep state’ intelligence analyst in Langley.

Then we can swing straight back to the Democrats and to Democratic allies within the executive branch. The scale of anonymous and likely illegal leaking is simply astounding. Public officials appear to be willfully disregarding the law and their own promises (federal employees sign a classified-information nondisclosure agreement as a condition of handling classified information) in a tit-for-tat battle against Trump. His administration issues a statement, they respond with a leak. Yesterday, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes said that the intelligence community may have picked up Trump-transition-team communications in its surveillance of foreign targets. Hours later, CNN reported that the “FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Anonymous officials strike again.

We’re in the middle of a political version of the Iran–Iraq war, where legitimate rage abounds but virtue is hard to find. Or, if you prefer a sitcom analogy, every day is Festivus and we’re trapped in a perpetual airing of the grievances.

All of this nonsense is justified, excused, and indulged through the sheer force of tribalism. Unilateral honesty is seen as unilateral disarmament. It might mean we don’t win. It might mean we can’t adjust tax rates, change insurance regulations, or nominate the right judges. All these things are important, but we can’t miss the cultural forest for the political trees.

In one of John Adams’s most famous letters, he wrote that “our constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” But earlier in that same letter, he says something of equal power: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”

I happen to be more optimistic than Adams. We have more than 200 years of history demonstrating that our constitutional structure can withstand a great deal of “avarice,” “ambition,” and “revenge.” But even the strongest human systems have their limits, and those limits are tested not by tax rates but by human behavior and human integrity. We can fail that test only for so long.

And don’t think for a minute that the blame lies only with lying, leaking elites. These are men and women responding to a political market. Voters say they hate negative ads, but negative ads work. Voters say they dislike dishonest politicians, but Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were two of the least honest politicians in modern American history. They won their parties’ primaries, and neither race was particularly close. Tribalism can be just as corrupting for a coal miner in Kentucky as it can be for a “deep state” intelligence analyst in Langley. America needs political virtue. Where will she find it?

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