The public's complacency may set a new norm

Copyright 2017 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a commentary on December 3, 2017
in the San Antonio Express-News)

     Thereís a complacency taking place within political arenas in our country, and we should own it.

     Before getting into that, though, Iíll touch on the state of our politics and government at all levels. I refer to the publicís growing unrest, discontent, and mistrust of our political leaders.

     This isnít new, of course. Citizensí reactions or responses to the actions or inactions of politicians can be a healthy and critical aspect of our republican form of government. It helps provide a standard by which we judge those running for public office and, equally important, to set our goals for improving our quality of life.

     But what is new is that in recent times, the trust weíve placed on our public officials has eroded. That erosion, in turn, has lessened the operation, benefit, and productivity of our local, state, and federal governments.

     Most politicians, of course, are keenly aware of this discontent. In fact, newcomers into politics use it as a tool to help them get into office. And if enough of us believe them when they remind us of our disenchantment and that, if elected, they can be trusted to do whatís right, they become our new leaders. In time, we may find that things havenít changed at all and may even have worsened. This then fuels the mistrust.

     Officials in all three branches of government, due to malfeasance or errors in judgment, sometimes deserve our mistrust.

     In the judiciary, for example, some judges, aware of the publicís tenor, turn their backs on judicial independence, which they should hold sacred, and render decisions not based on whatís right but on whatís popular with the public.

     Those in the executive branch often become autocratic and abuse their power to get things done, even when not in the publicís best interests.

     Finally, our legislators arenít immune from earning our mistrust, often enacting or keeping bad laws already in the books because they fear losing the publicís support or, just the opposite, because they are supportive of their own self-interests instead of the publicís.

     The problem is exacerbated by continuing political scandals and dishonesty that further weaken our trust. For this reason, qualified prospects wonít surface to unseat incompetent or ineffective incumbents because they fear that getting into politics will place not only them but their families under public scrutiny, at times overdone. A vicious cycle is thus created.

     Historically, the peopleís displeasure with public officials has existed for time immemorial. Itís human nature and very much a part of the process.

     Perception plays a role in all of this. It is what constituents perceive of their leaders, not necessarily the facts, thatís important. That perception may not be warranted, of course, especially when constituents arenít above reproach themselves.

     I was surprised to discover that these tainted perceptions arenít new when I came across a passage in an old novelóin truth a series of nine novels: ďThe Forsyte SagaĒ, written around 1922 by John Galsworthy, a British novelistóabout life in the Victorian era.

     One character, whoís recently been elected to the British Parliament, is speaking to a mentor. In discussing what the public may believe about another member of Parliament on an issue, the legislator asks, ďBut you donít suppose that people would believe a thing like that?Ē

     The mentor replies, ďThey will believe anything . . . that suggests corruption in public life. Itís one of the strongest traits in human nature. Anxiety about the integrity of public men would be admirable, if it wasnít so usually felt by those who have so little integrity themselves that they canít give others credit for it.Ē

     Though the mistrust has been whimsical at times in the past, I think today it goes much deeper. Our displeasure is generally justified because civility, decency, honesty, and integrity, for the most part, have fallen by the wayside, especially among our leaders.

     We see corruption, self-interest, wheeling and dealing and especially in Texas, bathroom bills, local budget caps, anti-immigration extremism and other radical ideas. Finally, we observe office holders leaving office much richer than when they entered.

     So where does complacency enter the mix? In my view, the entry into the field of politics of individualsócoming from those of us who have grown accustomed to the poor state of affairsóis establishing a norm that, if not forestalled, will lead to our accepting less-than-honorable methods as the way to get things done. It will have become the new norm.

     Or has it occurred already?

     Are we effectively doing anything about this quandary before it gets worse? If not, weíre complicit in changing the political landscape. Sure, we have agencies and organizations, some at the grassroots level, that monitor all phases of government to assure reform and change take place. But is that enough? None of those groups, that I know of, addresses the complacency.

     When I first set out to write this piece, I had no one politician in mind; I merely intended to address the complacency I saw all around me. By now, however, some of you may be thinking that Iíve not mentioned the elephant in the roomóDonald Trump.

     This man is a prime example of our passage into complacency and demagoguery. And thatís true not only of our president but of many public officials. They are running all over the place, making false claims and promises to gain power, not only in Texas but elsewhere.

     All of us should think long and hard whether weíre willing to stand by and accept the norm that individuals like Trump and those of his ilk have set in lowering the bar on the criteria by which we select our public officials.

     And we must stay informed so that we can select the very best to lead us. Iíve grown embarrassed not only by whatís taking place in our nationís capital but here in Texas, where politicians seek their own glory and feed their egos at our expense.

     It may be that Iím wrong; that Iím being harsh. Maybe so. But shouldnít we at least ask the question: Are we doing enough to quell the political tide that may destroy our system of government?

     If we are, then weíve nothing to worry about.