There has never been a time when somebody in our government was not misbehaving in some kind of way, whether it’s overthrowing democratically elected presidents of other countries or tailoring legislation to fill the pockets of campaign donors. The latest misbehavior has involved the surveillance of the Associated Press by the Justice Department as part of an investigation of leaks of classified information and the targeted scrutiny of conservative political “non-profits” by the IRS. The sad irony in these incidents is that the government is behaving undemocratically and very clumsily in response to issues that are legitimately undermining our democracy.
The IRS scandal has to do with the open cynicism in the world of political “non-profits.” Basically you can get non-profit status for an organization that puts out political advertising during election season as long as your advertising has to do with “promoting social welfare” and not with supporting a particular candidate (wink wink nudge nudge).
If you’re promoting a candidate, then your organization has to report itself in a different tax category with a different set of regulations. So you circumvent this regulation by attacking the opposing candidate’s position on a particular issue and give your front organization a name like Americans for the Right to Eat Coal for Breakfast so that you’re not supporting a candidate per se; you’re just passionate about your “issue.” I can’t think of anything in tour political discourse more contrary to our “social welfare” than these attack ads.
The other thing that has destroyed our democracy is our media’s addiction to scandal. Instead of having intelligent (and boring) conversations about the relative merits of different policy, the pundits would much rather talk about political gamesmanship and strategy and turn the whole thing into a horse race. One of the fuels for this fire are the information leaks that the press is able to obtain from government officials “on condition of anonymity.”
Now maybe I just don’t have the right perspective on journalism, but I have a real ethical problem with anonymous sources. I don’t feel like there were as many anonymous sources 15 years ago in the news as there are today. And it seems to me that the increasing use of anonymous sources is directly related to the conversion of news into entertainment and the parallel conversion of governance into a horse race. The show Scandal is such a perfect illustration of our cultural ethos. It’s about a government that doesn’t do any governing because all that exists are scandals and press conferences and coverups.
The Justice Department investigation had to do with an anonymous source that leaked classified information about a foiled terrorist plot that was stopped by the CIA. There was a scandal when the leak happened because it seemed like a clumsy way for the administration to get credit for fighting terrorism. Now there’s a scandal about the investigation of the leak. So the political beneficiaries of these two scandals get to double-dip.
My friend John Meunier in the context of a completely unrelated discussion draws a distinction between polemical and constructive conversation:
Polemics — as I understand the word — implies a level of combative argumentation over a controversial topic in which the goal is to win the point. As I use the term “constructive,” I mean… the shared effort to inquire and learn in which all sides start with the assumption that they might in the end discover that their position is untenable or must be changed.
Our country’s political discourse has become entirely polemical. There is no longer a good-faith effort to seek solutions for our country’s problems constructively, which would require knowing that you are coming at these problems from very different perspectives but having the basic insight that you’ve got some blind-spots and things to learn from those who see the world differently. Instead, almost all of the energy is being channeled into pummeling the other side’s image through scandals so that they’re in a weaker negotiating position.
I’ve shared before that the Greek word for devil is diabolos which is a compound word built from the words ballo (to throw) and dia (amidst). People who delight in scandal are diabolical by definition. I don’t know how much uglier it will get. Rene Girard theorizes about how scandal escalates in a society to the point that a scapegoat is needed upon which all the collective fury can be released so that peace can be restored. The problem is Jesus already played that role, and so many of the people who love fanning the flames of today’s scandals the most are supposedly His people.