Our current political moment reminds me of a Robert Frost poem, which I’ll roughly paraphrase. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood. We can see down each road just a bit. Yet knowing how way leads on to way, let’s think before we choose our fate.
Down the first road is virtue. In Sunday school we all learned the Ten Commandments. In school, I was taught we were a country of laws. Our leaders were honest, and its citizens too. Many chose virtue over vice to get the lawful democracy we have today.
Our country was founded in response to the corruption of King George, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Walpole, aka “Cock Robin.” King George perverted the parliament through “rotten boroughs” that had a seat in parliament but almost no actual residents. Noblemen could easily buy a seat in parliament from these boroughs. “Cock Robin” then wined and dined the new MP’s at his palatial estate. He welcomed them to the club of players. And of course he offered up a generous bribe to get in line.
Our founding fathers were astounded by the corruption they saw in England. They tried to build safeguards against corruption in America. One safeguard is the emoluments clause of the constitution. It requires congressional approval for any gifts or other emoluments received by government officials, from a foreign country. When Benjamin Franklin returned from France, he was given a jeweled snuff box from King Louis XVI of France. Ben Franklin had to get Congressional approval before he could keep this token of esteem.
American history has its fair share of corrupt scandals. Everything from the Yazoo River land grab to the Teapot Dome scandal. Later the Progressive movement, aided by prominent muckraking journalists, broke up the big trusts, and set up controls to rein in the robber barons.
The reforms made things better. Government became more honest, and cared for its citizens. Businesses played it straight with their customers. Drugs were safe and effective, and contained what they claimed. Food didn’t have poisonous ingredients. People didn’t cheat on their taxes. The garbage got picked up on time. As a country we are relatively honest and law-abiding. Down this first path lies what Black Elk called “the good red road.”
And what lies down the other road? Vice, corruption and decline. The Roman Empire fell because the governing elite became too powerful, lost their sense of civic virtue, and abused their power for selfish gain. The scholars Plutarch and Cicero pointed to corruption as the central cause for the empire’s decline.
This second road is more like Pottersville from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Only suckers pay their taxes. What money the government does collect is embezzled away. Politicians build suspiciously large homes. No money is left to fix potholes, or much of anything.
The motto here is ‘caveat emptor’. It starts at the top and trickles down. Businesses bribe politicians, then rip off their customers. Employees steal from their employers. Everyone cheats the other guy before he cheats you. A laughing Nick throws Mister Gower out into the snow.
It’s also a road of lies. Dead-eyed propagandists fill the airwaves, endlessly spinning the gilded heart of plutocracy. Truth gets thinner and thinner, straining under a white noise snowstorm of
lies. Spectacle and melodrama infect society with blind partisan allegiance.
We’ve sadly taken a few steps down this corrupt path. In 2008, Wall Street fat cats committed a huge fraud on investors, and trashed our economy. Yet big banks were deemed “too big to fail”, then “too big to regulate”. All because Congress is “too dependent on their cash”. Big Pharma lines congressional pockets with loot, then overcharges us for prescription drugs. The list goes on and on. Does anyone think it’s a good idea to accept campaign cash from Russia?
Going down this road will end in tears. Little by little, then all at once we become like Greece, Argentina or Venezuela. Or like Russia.
The United States can still be the city on the hill. With our votes, we can choose the honest path. it will make all the difference.
• Robert Welton resides in Douglas.