This post took me a surprisingly long time to write. It was not the difficulty of the subject or the lack of inspiration. Not even existential boredom. On the contrary. The reason was that raw material never stopped flowing. A flood of information. Political scandals come slushing down the hill like a mudslide. There has never been a scandal-free period or regime but, it starts to be certainly concerning. How far do we have to go back for such a daily frequency? The 30s maybe? Over the past few weeks and months, it seems like nobody is immune. Like a rush to complete a sticker collection. It is France with Macron, Abad, Darmanin, Zacharopoulou, Coquerel; the UK with Johnson, Pincher… Be it countries, regimes, institutions, presidents, prime ministers, ministers or parliamentarians. It is House of Cards live on screen.
And yet, the most striking is not the numbers, the frequency, maybe not even the scandals themselves. It is the staggering reactions that all these politicians share. The disbelief, the indignation at being taken to task for their behaviour. To me, this standard reaction, the affronted dignity, says it all. Whenever evidence surfaces, the apparently acceptable answer is Who? Me?
What seems the issue, officer?
Joking about appointing a known sexual predator. Organising parties for myself and mine while sending police on the streets to enforce a curfew. Discussing with the targeted companies the pesky regulations I am in charge of… Poking, groping, grabbing, raping. The facts themselves are puzzling, shocking, abhorrent. Yet, to me, it is the entitlement in the recorded reactions that is the most problematic.
Maybe some did worse, but Boris Johnson is the paragon of this trend. As the apex politician of his country, his exit speech as Prime Minister was a staggering self-indictment of contemporary politics. To summarise: how shocking is it that I am held responsible for my administration; I was betrayed by my own camp while I had a mandate from millions of voters. To everyone else reading or hearing this, it is clear that the mandate was not a free pass to overlook sexual predators, and even less to appoint them as political enforcers. Nor did it allow to organise illegal parties and generally disregard the very rules you set. To add another layer, minutes after his resignation, there was not a paper in England, even its staunchest supporters, that would not come up with at least a mention of Boris Johnson ‘s “casual dishonesty”. As if this was some cute little rascal. Really?
To be fair, France got four better on him at least: appointing not 1, but 3 ministers accused of rape. And this just after spectacularly losing the parliamentary elections. The individuals themselves, their decisions, their behaviours are but one problem. Their reaction is something else. The utter disregard for the reactions provoked, seems quite systemic. And, truth be told, when even the European Commission gets cosy with Uber, the red lines seem at the very least blurred, when not erased.
It is logical, natural, expedient enough to allow grey zones on the edge of the public action. The blurred lines allow more efficient, faster ways of finding solutions. No organisation, system, political or other can operate without some steam valves. These steam valves may be Davos, Bilderberg or other. The original intent to serve the “greater good” and accept some leeway in conception or execution cannot be dismissed out of hand. That is, if you think that a country should defend itself and thus operate some form of secret services. Even the Swiss have one of these.
But, regardless of position — public or private, corporate or administrative — these grey zones are enshrined into a legal frame. Basically, some version of “with great power comes great responsibility”. Grey zones are set, framed and possibly sanctioned.
On the fly, ad hoc, self-righteousness always ended up in drifting morality. Nothing should excuse un-accountability. After all, acting in the best interest and intent should surely be easily explainable. It is not even a question to be put into a public court.
It is exactly not the self-serving justifications we hear these days.
Rules must be seen to apply to all
If you believe in democracy, you believe in a core of common rules, a common law. Written or verbal, established in law or in jurisprudence, regardless of time, period and exact regime, it sets the rules by which an action is legal or not. Re-interpreting them because of circumstances is covered in law and usage. However, it is not up to the individual, however exalted, to re-interpret them through his own individual prism. Why else would Watergate be a scandal?
The first layer that the public sees is individual behaviours, long before the very technical legal backbone that are law or jurisprudence. The reaction to legal accusations is an acid test to this. Before you can make people believe in a vision, you have to demonstrate the principles you believe in. You can’t just invoke them in a speech. You may think that there is no real vision out there, as put in “I Have… No Dream“. What we are losing today is even the belief that we live under a common set of rules. And then there is indeed nothing left to discuss. Today, these public reactions erode not only the personal credibility of the individual indicted, but the belief that there is a solution in the existing systems.
Need to regain public support? Want to overcome the spreading anger? Start with “Do as I do, not as I say”. That is actually why everyone understood the message sent by Zelensky, without knowing his politics, beliefs or credentials.
Most public figures across countries have genuine talent, knowledge and capabilities. To use this talent, it is crucial to see factual actions inspired by public spirit as a norm, not as an exception.
Res Publicae are the Latin words that mean “public affairs”, and has evolved into “Republic”. A mystical belief in accountability. That is what we learnt from Pericles, Danton, Lincoln, Churchill, JFK, De Gaulle. This is why these leaders remain national myths — because or despite of their individual decisions. They all accepted and lived the rules of the game. And if taken to task for their decisions, they owned up to it.
It is not the number of daily scandals that is a shock or an issue. The problem is the lack of accountability and the systematic indignation at being questioned, more than the scandals themselves.
This just erodes further trust and belief (cf. The End of Implicit Trust).
The public mind-set has already been shaken by the last few years, and we know that palaces can burn. Not that there is any solution in this, apart from releasing the pent up frustration at what is a rigged game if there is no demonstrable accountability.
Countering starts with personal accountability. Living it.
And then laying out a true vision.