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Are ethics in politics dead?

Jack Lessenberry

The greatest scandal in American political history was, of course, Watergate. Reporters began investigating corruption in the Nixon Administration.

Congressional committees and the courts got involved, and the existence of a secret White House taping system was eventually discovered. Finally, the tapes provided absolute proof of Richard Nixon’s criminality.

When that happened, he had no choice but to resign. Our long national nightmare was over, as the new president said.

But what if, after the smoking gun tape was revealed, Nixon had said something like:

“So what? I don’t give a damn. The Democrats are worse.”

Nobody would have accepted that in 1974, and he would have been immediately removed from office. But I’m not so sure about today.

There’s always been corruption in our politics, but in the past, we threw out the bums once they were exposed. Today, this often isn’t the case. After State Senator Virgil Smith assaulted his ex-wife and shot up her car last year, the Democratic leadership refused to call for his resignation.

Another Democrat, State Representative Brian Banks of Detroit, was renominated by the voters this month despite eight felony convictions. After he won the election, he was charged with three more felonies. And Republicans last weekend conferred the ceremonial honor of serving as a presidential elector on one William Rauwerdink, who not long ago served four years in federal prison for one of the worst accounting scandals ever.

Which made me wonder – do we care about ethics at all anymore?

"I think the public is so bombarded by media that it is easier and easier for them to just tune out."

 Yesterday, I talked to a man who studies and teaches ethics for a living: John Corvino, head of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, where I teach. He told me, “I think the public is so bombarded by media that it is easier and easier for them to just tune out.”

He agreed that, perhaps because of the rise of reality shows and the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction that these days, we too often “react with a kind of nonchalance,” to whatever we see and hear, and Trump is a good example of it.”

Indeed, the Republican presidential nominee was a celebrity and a reality TV show long before politics.

Professor Corvino, who is 47, said he tries not to be one of those people who reflexively say things were better in the past, and denounce the current generation. But he noted that “even in my time I’ve seen this getting worse.”

Some of it has to do with the fact that there is no longer any universally trusted media or media figure, like Walter Cronkite.

Much of it may have to do with how polarized we now are.

A colleague told me that some Michigan Republicans justified Rauwerdink by claiming he was a small fry who was made a scapegoat by tyrannical government, and by muttering about “crooked Hillary,” as Donald Trump calls her, even though Clinton has never even been charged with a crime.

I asked him what journalists could do about this. "Damned if I know," he said.

There’s also, as Professor Corvino noted the constant pressure to make news entertaining, in a world where we need constant headlines.

I asked him what journalists could do about this.

“Damned if I know,” he said.

This is depressing and demoralizing. And all I know is we need someone to find an answer, relatively soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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