Here’s a Great Question For Every Presidential Candidate

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“What will you do to address entrenched corruption in Washington?”

What do I mean by “corrupt” you ask? Let me explain.

The word “corruption” as applied to politics usually conjures notions of bribery. People imagine a corrupt politician as one who takes money or some other form of patronage in exchange for an explicitly promised favor, or abuses the power of office for personal gain. While it sometimes assumes advanced forms, rooting out this sort of corruption is a generally approachable and solvable problem. At the individual level, it also has a relatively minor impact on the overall functioning of a political system, so long as the system detects and stamps it out before it metastasizes.

But there’s another form of corruption that occurs when the entire system itself is structured to produce outcomes at odds with its stated or charged objectives. When this form of corruption occurs, each individual in the system is doing what the system permits and even expects. No one is breaking any laws. Yet, the outcomes produced by the system miss the mark in various ways ranging from sub-optimal to absurd.

This is a much more intractable form of corruption. Because it is fractious, diffuse, shapeless, and baked into the entire political process, it’s very hard to point at any single actor, action, or component as the culprit. This makes it difficult to approach, especially within a context where failure is ordinarily the only suitable predicate for meaningful corrective action.

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Such is the predicament for modern America. We have gradually, incrementally built a legally corrupt political system. It is peopled, in the vast majority of cases, by well-meaning elected and appointed public servants who nonetheless lack of the will and the capability to correct the system from within. Because of the towering spoils attendant to its continuation, various guardians simultaneously shield it against external reform. It is intractable. And with every moment that it persists, we creep closer to the kind of national failure that is historically inevitable for any corrupt regime, no matter how great, fearsome, wealthy, or once virtuous.

The video below actually depicts the problem better and more economically than I ever could. If you take the few minutes to watch it, you’ll be provoked, and perhaps even motivated to reflect further on the costs and risks of our political process as currently fielded. This is likely to be true no matter where you situate yourself on the political spectrum.

Now, with those ideas weighing freshly on your conscience, think about the political issues and problems that matter most to you. Think about your frustration at having those issues unresolved, trapped in gridlock, enslaved to partisan bickering, or otherwise underserved by your elected representatives. Now ask yourself if the frustration you’re feeling is traceable to the systemic corruption we’re talking about here. In all likelihood, the answer is yes.

It’s certainly true for the issues that concern me most. My mind is brimming these days with policy questions whose answers I believe have a lot to say about our future as a republic. 

How is that we’re continuing to wage wars without debating or declaring them? How is it that we’re not asking Americans to pay for the wars their elected representatives support? How is it that the veterans who fight in those wars can’t get the help they and their families need and were promised? Who is accountable for that failure?

How can elected representatives get away with spending trillions of dollars to wage war without elucidating — transparently — its costs and risks? How do we stop elected representatives from pursuing projects that feather their electoral nests but are not best for national defense? Why do politicians and appointees continue to pursue poor investments using taxpayer dollars and in defiance of the will taxpayers would manifest if properly informed? How is it that public officials are permitted to openly, blatantly, and grossly waste taxpayer dollars in a time of increasing austerity? Why does our system allow Congress to hand the military services more work to do without more resources to get it done, ensuring the cost will be exacted in the form of unreasonable and chronic strain and fatigue on individual servicemembers and families? How is it that the only cost-saving measures anyone can come up with involve stepping over dollars to save dimes, usually at the expense of the least advantaged among us?

How have we let the rules of war be brought home and employed by our government against our own citizens? How have we failed to insist that our values inform and animate what we do abroad? Why isn’t our foreign policy more intelligently formulated? Why are our security agencies lacking basic transparency and accountability? How has our foreign policy become so militarized that diplomacy is now entitled to a tiny fraction of the resources we allocate to weapons of war?

These are just a few of my pet questions, pertaining mostly to issues of national defense, veterans, and agency reform. I could list a thousand more. I’m sure you have your own and you’re welcome to add them in the comments. They all add up to one common, over-arching question:

How can the politicians we elect continue to succeed on their terms while failing on ours?

I suggest that the reason is because our system is corrupt. That doesn’t mean the people in the system are necessarily dishonorable or that the system doesn’t sometimes produce good outcomes. But so long as its current condition persists unremedied, the gap between our interests and those of our elected representatives will continue to widen. At some point, they’ll be divergent enough to pull the system apart. When that happens, change will come, but it’ll be tumultuous and potentially destructive rather than controlled and tranquil.

That is, unless we start demanding an explanation from each person we consider electing about what s/he plans to do to address the corrupt system in Washington. Seems a particularly relevant idea as a couple dozen presidential candidates continue making their opening arguments. The tone of some of those opening arguments reinforces the notion of an ailing system with power and power-seeking increasingly unmoored from reason. 

Can we muster the will to correct it? Can we at least muster the will to ask the question?

★          ★          ★          ★          ★

See also here, where you’ll find a great list of references used in the making of the embedded video. Those sources contain a wealth of sobering data.

See also here, where I did my best to explain that taking care of veterans starts with ensuring a functioning link between war and the citizens who support it through their representatives. Until the costs of war can be felt across that link and its incentives appropriately tamed, it will continue to be a growth enterprise.

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