Can a political elite hold itself accountable? Left to its own devices, absent a virtuous citizenry, a political elite is able to exploit a conflict of interest in both wielding the authority of government and using that power even to constrain the elite itself. Unfortunately, even where an electorate is virtuous, the dispersed condition of the popular sovereign is an impediment to galvanizing enough popular will to act as a counter-power to that of a political elite, which is relatively concentrated and well-informed. In early 2017, the problem was on full display in the E.U. state of France, with little the federal government could do given the amount of governmental sovereignty still residing at the state level. So the question is whether an electorate can galvanize enough power to counter that of a political elite.
François Fillon in trouble for corruption (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
Just months before the election, France’s leading presidential candidate was “in deep trouble” for payments of nearly €831, 440 “from the public payroll to his wife and children” over the 30 years in which François Fillon employed them. Penelope Fillon “was paid with taxpayer money for a bogus job as a parliamentary assistant to her husband and his deputy” in the state Assembly. Because her husband had “fashioned himself as a stern and honest politician,” the sordid odor of hypocrisy was in the air, yet the practice itself, which was legal at the time, was to “many French politicians” no “big deal.” So from the press and the public came “a wellspring of anger” calling into question the standard operating procedures of the political class.” In short, the response was: “They just don’t get it.” C’est vraiment incroyable. Really incredible.
A political class cannot police itself if its culture is so ensconced in the misuse of funds, even if legal, that the ubiquitous practice is not even recognized as being unethical in nature. On an organizational scale, I have witnessed a university’s culture so dysfunctional—with such passive aggression from the non-academic staff—that the offending creatures would not even recognize themselves in the mirror; even to question them would be perceived as a provocation. Accountability is impossible in such a sordid organization. So, too, a political class with an ingrown sense of presumptuous entitlement cannot possibly hold itself accountable. A perception of wrong-doing is requisite to holding oneself accountable. The decisive question is therefore whether a “wellspring of anger” in a public-at-large can be sufficient to “throw the bastards out.”
Even if a sizable proportion of an electorate votes to “throw the bums out,” other rationales for voting doubtless exist and can dilute the effect such that the culture of the political class can survive. Furthermore, even intense anger today can quickly dissipate, such that the results of an election even just months away show little sign of the earlier sizzling headlines. Even major protests do not necessarily translate into the ballot box. At the time Fillon was facing a harsh reaction in France, more than 250,000 irate people in the state of Romania were protesting after Liviu Dragnea’s governing Social Democratic Party passed a law on January 31, 2017 making “official misconduct punishable by prison time only in cases in which the financial damage is more than 200,000 lei, or about $47,000”—Dragnea himself facing “charges of abouse of power involving a sum” less than 200,000 lei. Here we can see the conflict of interest on full display: Dragnea was using the power of his party in the state legislature such that he would essentially be above the (constraint of) law. Yet even such a blatant case cannot be expected to be punished when the next election comes around. Something more is needed to address the inherent conflict of interest.
1. Adam Nossiter, “Fillon Scandal Indicts, Foremost, France’s Political Elite,” The New York Times, February 3, 2017; Aurelien Breeden, “Graft Allegations Grow Against Francois Fillon, French Presidential Hopeful,” The New York Times, February 1, 2017.
2. Aurelien Breeden, “Graft Allegations Grow Against Francois Fillon, French Presidential Hopeful,” The New York Times, February 1, 2017
3. Adam Nossiter, “Fillon Scandal Indicts, Foremost, France’s Political Elite,” The New York Times, February 3, 2017
6. Palko Karasz, “Protests Rock Romania After Government Weakens Corruption Law,” The New York Times, February 2, 2017.