The common saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has never struck me as quite right. Certainly we see the corrupt employment of power, perhaps never so dramatically and clearly, and drearily, than with Donald Trump, but his power did not make him what he is...
Power doesn’t corrupt; it reveals.
— Robert Caro
The common saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has never struck me as quite right. Certainly we see the corrupt employment of power, perhaps never so dramatically and clearly, and drearily, than with Donald Trump, but his power did not make him what he is. As one reporter said, unable to come up with a more restrained and politic answer as to why Trump acted in a certain way, a question that has arisen innumerable times in the last five years: “he’s just a bad person.” And indeed he is.
We cannot expect good things to happen if we elect bad people as our leaders. While this is not always an easy distinction to make – sociopaths are expert at appearing to care about others – we can perhaps do more to focus on character when assessing candidates for public office. For example, we should disqualify anyone who is a proven liar. If we cannot trust a leader to tell us the truth, then we cannot trust them for anything. As Sissela Bok wrote in her famous book “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” published in 1978:
Of course we know that many lies are trivial, but since we, who are lied to, have no way to judge which lies are trivial ones, and since we have no confidence that liars will restrict themselves to just such trivial lies, the perspective of the deceived leads us to be wary of all deception.
As electors it is within our power not to elect bad people and liars, but how exactly can we do that? Dishonesty is one of the most effective tools in the aspiring politician’s toolkit – not that they all utilize it to the same extent, but even for the most upright of candidates the temptation is great. The system virtually demands it. “Tell us what we want to hear,” is the siren call of the electorate, and many succumb to it. Well, all of them do, to some extent. Our job as electors is to try to find political candidates who at least make some effort to be honest, and to weed out those who, like Trump, lie so habitually that their rare expressions of truth are accidents – they just lose track.
Simply put, elections encourage and reward lying. We have a system that does select out not the best people but, in some cases at least, the worst – the most effective liars. We do not want to give up on democracy, but what can we do about this fatal, or at least near fatal, flaw in our selection process?
In the first known democratic government, in Athens around 500 BC, there were three governing bodies, one open to participation by all eligible citizens and the other two by representatives of the people. These representatives were chosen, however, not through elections but by a process of random selection. It was recognized that electing these representatives would be dangerous: mere popularity or wealth could have an undue influence on electoral success (how could they think of such a thing!). So the selections were made by lottery – this was believed to truly represent the will of the people in a manner that was less subject to unethical manipulation.
Somewhere along the way, however, the idea was lost, and democracy became intimately connected to elections; it has become received wisdom that elections and democracy go together. It is like the old song that insists, “love and marriage … you can’t have one without the other.” Except, of course, you can.
Choosing our political leaders through a process of random selection would have many advantages, the most significant of which would be to decrease, radically, the number of scheming manipulators of the popular will that hold public office. There still would be some, to be sure, but no more than occur naturally in the population. Elections ensure that the percentage of self-serving manipulators and demagogues gaining positions of power far exceeds the number we might expect by chance. There are bad people out there, but far fewer than we might think after surveying the current political scene – particularly in the Republican party in the US, which seems to operate like a crime syndicate.
And let us get quite specific here. It is difficult to imagine a worse person to lead a nation than the sociopathic nihilist Donald Trump. His list of offences is long and disgraceful – I drew my line and no longer visit the US when Trump orchestrated his campaign of terror at the Mexican border, taking babies and children from their parents and putting them in cages. The very thought of this haunts me even today.
Random selection of politicians would not have ensured Trump would never come to power, but it would drastically reduce the chance of such a thing ever happening again – like one chance in about three hundred million.
* * *
Well, abandoning elections is not very likely, but we ought to try to find some way of loosening the stranglehold that corrupt people have on democracy. Power does not make them this way, as Robert Caro points out. Power reveals who they really are. There must be a better way of assessing this before we elect them.
As I write this in late January, a news story reports that Canadian Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole plans to expel Ontario MP Derek Sloan from the Conservative caucus. Sloan had accepted a campaign donation from a known white nationalist. Perhaps there are good lessons we are learning from the Trump years in the US. ♦