What should we make of ethics in today’s politics?

This week, U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was charged with 13 counts of ethics violations by a House subcommittee.  Corruption is nothing new in politics, and the team at The Political Panorama decided to discuss the issue of ethics in politics.


I stated at my personal blog earlier this week that Charlie Rangel had to step down.  However, ethics has very little to do with it.  In fact, I think that there has been too much of an effort on “good government” in recent years.  People say that they want to be able to “trust” the person that represents them.  Well, would you trust someone that you do not know personally to, say, housesit for you or babysit your child?  Of course not.  So why do we ask that much more of our elected officials?

One of my personal political heroes is former Democratic U.S. Senator and Louisiana Governor Huey Pierce Long, Jr.  There is no question that this man was a corrupt political figure in Depression-era Louisiana.  There was a story about how after he had been elected to the U.S. Senate, he would fly back to Baton Rouge and still be allowed to sit in his old chair, or how he had political opponents kidnapped until crucial votes were taken in the Louisiana General Assembly.  For all of his faults, however, he delivered: new night schools for poor Louisianans, free school textbooks, a new state capitol, and over 9,000 miles of new highway were built between his election as Governor in 1928 and his assassination by an opponent in 1935.

My big problem with Rangel is that Harlem has not seen that kind of progress, and that is the crux of the matter.  Shady dealings happen every day in our citadels of democracy, but if you can better the community around you, then perhaps it is a cost worth paying.  If you only seem to be enriching yourself, however, then that is where the line of demarcation must be drawn, and you must go.


In light of rampant corruption in recent years from folks across the spectrum and at all levels of government, it is worth considering whether corrupt activity in public service is acceptable in any scenario. Color me idealistic, but my philosophy on corruption boils down to this: Whether friend or foe, if corrupt, you need to go. There are always legitimate means to an end, even using one’s political savvy. The line between using strategy/savvy and corruption is a bright one and it should not be crossed. Ends do not justify means. When the public entrusts a person directly (elected) or indirectly (appointed/hired) with public service job, they are responsible and accountable to the public and that necessarily involves maintaining one’s integrity personally and professionally.


I understand Charlie Rangel’s nostalgia. He’s been in Washington D.C. since 1971. That’s 16 years before I was born. It’s time that he give it up. I respect his views, while disagreeing with nearly all of his major stances, my respect for him is lowering fast.

Corruption is in politics. It always has been, and always will. I believe that almost everyone who subjects themselves to the highly public life of politics enters with positive intentions. However, I do believe the longer someone is in a constant position (such as Congressman Rangel, he hasn’t changed or moved political offices) that the chances of corruption grows.

The risk of corruption is one of the biggest reasons in my opinion that people have so little faith in politicians. They are good people who are quickly turned toward the “bad.” I would love for academia to somehow figure out how to explore this. Is it greed? Power? Money? Respect?

There is never a reason for someone to be corrupt. We are all human and make mistakes. Some of them are even large. However, when you are holding political office, you need to be on your highest guards. As citizens, we need to be willing to forgive for a personal mistake. However, continued mistakes should be questioned and checked for possible corruption.

I was thrilled to see the Democrats finally stop from defending Charlie Rangel. If the situation was flipped, I would expect and hope Republicans would treat a previously well respected member of their party in a similar manner. Charlie Rangel has his time to prove these charges wrong. We will see who’s right: the Ethics Committee or Rep. Rangel. If I was a gambling man, I’d be betting on the Ethics Committee.


Is corruption ever okay? To this question I answer no. The recent corruption charges against Rod Blagojevich, among others, has brought increasing attention to the corruption within the American political system. The institutional corruption in the United States has escalated and grown out of hand in recent times. A large number of U.S. Senators end up working as lobbyists upon retirement from service. It’s as if the lobby groups buy the future of the Senators. My thoughts are that former politicians should not be allowed to work as lobbyists after leaving their posts.

While I cannot vote in the United States, I still have a vested interest in the decisions made by U.S. politicians and I expect them to uphold an ethical standard. Politicians, as voices for their constituents, must not be given the idea that any sort of corruption is okay. Sadly when it comes to institutional corruption far too many Americans are content to allow corruption as long as they are the beneficiaries.

How do you protect human rights if corruption of any sort is allowed? You cannot. Recently I have been researching child sexual exploitation and human trafficking both internationally and domestically. The evidence of political corruption in places such as Moldova, Bosnia, and Serbia has led to rampant human rights abuses. The blatant disregard for human rights is not exclusive to foreign countries. Sure Rod Blagojevich may have sought personal gain by using his political authority, often viewed as only having personal ramifications for Blagojevich. However, the effect on the political system is profound. Companies and individuals gain a sense of entitlement above the law when the U.S. political system is complicit in their exploits.


One Response to What should we make of ethics in today’s politics?

  1. Adam says:

    I think Douglas makes the best point. Corruption isn’t uniformly bad. In a way, the ends justify the means to a point.

    I don’t think the others adequately addressed his point as they were a bit stuck under the assumption that corruption is bad.

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