Is politics becoming more corrupt? Or perhaps “incompetent” is a better, less inflammatory word. Nothing the government does, from local to national, seems to work, regardless of the party in power.
Here is a quintessential local example from Delaware. The story involves our County Executive who, back in the 1990s, was our county’s ambitious Chief of Police. Much of Delaware is unincorporated and county government is all most of us have at the local level, so being the Executive is a big deal. He served two terms as County Executive but was voted out amid federal racketeering and fraud charges of bribery, sexual harassment, and wire tapping. Change the details, and it is a fairly common, even boring, story all across the country.
His paramour and political crony took the fall and pled guilty to an associated charge. Since everyone in Delaware knew someone involved, her trial was moved to Philadelphia. As the Philadelphia Inquire described it:
It was a tale of political and high-society intrigue: secret FBI recordings, a romantic rendezvous, a lie-detector test, a cover-up, a $2 million sweetheart loan from a du Pont, assorted low-grade corruption—all focused on a lady who was once one of the state’s more powerful figures.
Spicy stuff for quiet, old Delaware. I heard no more of her. You would think from an ordinary sense of shame our County Executive would quietly retire to Belize on a fat pension and we would hear no more of him either, but, no, after sitting out a couple of terms, he was recently re-elected, which is mind-boggling, but common in local politics where political patronage dies hard. You can’t kill it with a stick.
But that is just background information for the real story. The county owns Rockwood Mansion, a charming Gothic Revival home built in the mid-1800s. It is a well-known local attraction, but it was sinking into disrepair from lack of sufficient funds to maintain it. Ah, but salvation was at hand, we thought. A public-spirited private group, the Friends of Rockwood, gathered $100,000 in donations and were ready to bring the property up to snuff.
But our County Executive stopped it. Why? Because the private repairs would not pay union wages, and unions still have political clout. The $100,000 would not be enough for repairs at inflated union rates, so now, nothing is being done. The Friends of Rockwood are not permitted to spend their money, the county does not have the money to do it, and no one gets any work, unionized or not.
But what is really scary is that this may be just a symptom of a deeper flaw in our representative form of democracy. Our system worked well when the average person was born, grew up, and died in the same area. They were farmers, their fathers were farmers, and their sons would be farmers. The family was certain to be living in the same area far into the future. The thinking was long-term, and the elected politicians had to represent their constituents.
But that was then. Why would any voter today be concerned with the long-term when they are new-comers themselves and could soon be living somewhere else, working at a different job, even married to a different person? Politicians know this, and their main concern becomes that of getting re-elected or lining up a cushy private job when their term is over. Their short-term decisions that had disastrous consequences will be forgotten by the new residents who have no inclination to connect the dots.
Today, someone could easily get re-elected by throwing a free party for the voters, a spectacular party costing $100 per person, and pay for it with bonds not due for 10 years. Few of the party-goers would ever see the bill.
The politicians are only being politicians. They are just ordinary people (or what has become ordinary) reacting to conditions that we have set up. We are bringing out the worst in them. That is what is really scary.