As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the 1700s political recommendation that “The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves. As there are many men wicked in some stations, who would be innocent in others; the best way is to make wickedness unsafe in any station.”
This is difficult to do. As Paul Campos points out, Donald Trump is “grotesquely unqualified, intellectually, emotionally, ethically, financially, aesthetically, and in every other way anyone can possibly think of to hold the most important single position in the system,” but he made it. Partly because people were willing to let him forge ahead, spew bullshit and ultimately to attempt a coup. Pointing out the king is naked isn’t much use when a significant part of the population will keep lying and insisting he does so have clothes.
In business, Elizabeth Holmes and the Sackler family ignored regulations, pushed bad products — and yet somehow neither regulators nor investors took any action. Three Arrows successfully bullshitted lots of investors. At a more trivial level, the University of Nebraska would have paid its unsuccessful head football coach $7.5 million less in separation money if they’d fired him after Oct. 1. They fired him this month, thereby blowing $7.5 million in funding. Mississippi funneled welfare money to ex-football star Brett Favre to help him build a college volleyball stadium.
So how do we make things unsafe in any station? In any station? Let’s take government. Campos has frequently pointed out how ineffective the Constitution is at safeguarding are rights if the government ignores them, and how the courts having the final say in what’s constitutional or legal isn’t working out too well with the Federalist Society staffing the courts. But if we let the legislature have the final say, that’s hardly a guarantee of good policy.
Having good people in office is a step in the right direction — but as that initial quote points out, men who appear innocent in some stations may become wicked in others. Power, as Robert Caro said, doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals, and we may not know how bad they’ll be until they have power to abuse (Trump, obviously, made it clear up front).
Enforcing the law against the powerful is a big part of it. At least we’re seeing some of the 1/6 terrorists held to justice. A judge in Alaska just ruled that an Oath Keeper isn’t legally fit for public office because the group supports the overthrow of the United States. Central Park Karen just lost a lawsuit over her employer firing her. And the furor over the Mississippi welfare/volleyball case may yet produce some justice (we’ll see).
But the investigation into Trump stealing classified documents may not produce any results. Despite the absurdity of Trump claiming he has the power to declassify documents just by thinking about them, there’s a strong resistance to prosecuting someone who used to be president. Even though he deserves it. WaPo columnist Jason Willick, for example, argues Biden should pardon Trump. Um, no. Let’s have one standard of justice for rich and poor alike. And more generally, the media should not stand by passively when one side provably lies.
Protest, getting involved, running for office and supporting good people (to the extent we can tell) who run is part of it. Letting our reps and senators know what we support is another. So is accepting it’s a never-ending battle: as someone once said, if slavery were revived tomorrow morning, by tomorrow night we’d have people driving around with trucks loaded with chains, hoping to make money. It shouldn’t be that way, but apparently it is.
Pushing “radical” ideas until they become mainstream is a big part of it too.
“Unsafe at any station” is also a constantly shifting target. The rules keep changing so our approaches have to change too. The Citizens United decision made it much easier for rich people to pour money into political races; that changes the political landscape. The Supreme Court possibly neutralizing the ability of state courts to restrict gerrymandering would be a very bad change; if it’s impossible for a party to lose, they have nothing at risk. There’s never going to be one simple playbook that covers every situation.
I have no brilliant conclusion here, just sort of assembling some thoughts.