The Loss of the Higher Standard

Richmond, Virginia, was in turmoil this past week after news broke that Governor Ralph Northam had published a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook. The photo, which depicts two men in racist costumes (one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood), has led to calls for Northam’s resignation. While criticism from both Democrats and Republicans in Virginia and nationwide have increased over the last few days, Northam has yet to step down from his position as governor.

Northam is no exception to the notion of politicians embroiled in scandal. Take Representative Steve King, for example. After King, the congressman of Iowa’s fourth district, made incendiary comments about white supremacy to The New York Times, King, unlike Northam, faced little blowback from his own Republican party. Rep. King is still currently a house member serving his constituents, despite his history of racist rhetoric. Furthermore, Representative Chris Collins, who was charged with insider trading, and Representative Duncan Hunter, who was charged with wire fraud and campaign finance violations, were re-elected by their constituents in 2018, albeit with much smaller margins. Both are from the Republican Party.

Thus, the question must be asked: what has happened to the higher ethical standard to which we hold our elected officials? Why has it become so acceptable for politicians to peddle lies, say outlandish things and even commit crimes?

The problem has to do, in part, with extreme partisanship in our current political climate. It is unfortunate that party affiliation has become such a deciding factor in competitive elections, throwing public policy, bipartisanship and ethical standards out the door. But it must be stated that for every politician who loses a race due to a scandal (Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama’s 2017 Senate race due to accusations of sexual misconduct with minors comes to mind), so many more politicians win their races despite their not-so-ethical backgrounds. Voters have come to value the idea of party affiliation over ethical standards, and the fact that scandalous stories get lost in the media’s never-ending news cycle doesn’t help remedy this issue.

It has become increasingly clear that the political system and climate are naturally appealing to those who want power, both socially and politically. It would be wrong to say that this system is not conducive to ambitious figures. The logical conclusion is that desires for power result in unhealthy ambitions that may, as seen through the actions of hundreds of unethical politicians, lead our public officials to violate the law.

But the notion of politics as a natural corruptor and the increased partisanship in the political sphere cannot be used as excuses for the inexcusable behaviors of politicians. One should never normalize unethical behavior, especially those of politicians who hold the key to the future of our country and its leadership. When our elected leaders and officials continue to defy the moral and ethical standards, they end up forsaking the very constituents that they serve. Collins, Hunter and King have lost their seats on every House Committee. They have all become pariahs in the house chamber, unable to craft or enact meaningful policy changes for their constituents. Their voices, which their constituents depend on for representation, have essentially been silenced. Congress has so far been reluctant to formally punish these politicians, and these disgraced Congressmen continue to serve their districts with what little power they have left. It is sad to say that without considerable action on the parts of Rep. Collins, Hunter and King or congressional leaders to remedy their unfortunate standings, their constituents have no choice but to vote them out in 2020.

Voters should not be the only members of society to maintain higher ethical standards in politics. Politicians themselves should realize that they should and must be held to a higher standard. After all, politicians are elected to serve the needs of the people who put them there, not themselves.