The public's complacency may set a new norm
(published as a commentary on December 3, 2017
Copyright 2017 (all rights reserved)
in the San Antonio Express-News)
There’s a complacency taking place within political arenas in our country, and we should own it.
Before getting into that, though, I’ll touch on the state of our politics and government at all levels. I refer to the public’s growing unrest, discontent, and mistrust of our political leaders.
This isn’t new, of course. Citizens’ 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 we’ve 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 what’s right, they become our new leaders. In time, we may find that things haven’t 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 public’s tenor, turn their backs on judicial independence, which they should hold sacred, and render decisions not based on what’s right but on what’s 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 public’s best interests.
Finally, our legislators aren’t immune from earning our mistrust, often enacting or keeping bad laws already in the books because they fear losing the public’s support or, just the opposite, because they are supportive of their own self-interests instead of the public’s.
The problem is exacerbated by continuing political scandals and dishonesty that further weaken our trust. For this reason, qualified prospects won’t 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 people’s displeasure with public officials has existed for time immemorial. It’s 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, that’s important. That perception may not be warranted, of course, especially when constituents aren’t above reproach themselves.
I was surprised to discover that these tainted perceptions aren’t new when I came across a passage in an old novel—in truth a series of nine novels: “The Forsyte Saga”, written around 1922 by John Galsworthy, a British novelist—about life in the Victorian era.
One character, who’s 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, “But you don’t suppose that people would believe a thing like that?”
The mentor replies, “They will believe anything . . . that suggests corruption in public life. It’s one of the strongest traits in human nature. Anxiety about the integrity of public men would be admirable, if it wasn’t so usually felt by those who have so little integrity themselves that they can’t give others credit for it.”
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 individuals—coming from those of us who have grown accustomed to the poor state of affairs—is 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, we’re 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 I’ve not mentioned the elephant in the room—Donald Trump.
This man is a prime example of our passage into complacency and demagoguery. And that’s 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 we’re 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. I’ve grown embarrassed not only by what’s taking place in our nation’s capital but here in Texas, where politicians seek their own glory and feed their egos at our expense.
It may be that I’m wrong; that I’m being harsh. Maybe so. But shouldn’t 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 we’ve nothing to worry about.