Tag Archives: corruption

Good People, Corruption, And Politics According To “Designated Survivor”

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Politics is a dirty, cut-throat world that often requires good people to compromise principles, integrity, and basic human decency. Most people wouldn’t argue that. Even before the internet, the corruption that often goes hand-in-hand with politics was well-documented. That corruption has only become more visible in recent years. It’s hard to go more than a week without seeing a fresh case of shady political conduct.

However, instead of dwelling on how ugly politics can get in the age of social media and outrage culture, I’d like to scrutinize the nature of that corruption. I don’t doubt the ugliness or absurdities that politics often breeds, but it also poses some interesting question.

Do politics naturally corrupt the people who get involved?

Is corruption in politics unavoidable?

Do politics only attract corrupt individuals?

Is it possible to get anything done in politics without some amount of corruption?

These are not easy questions to answer. You don’t have to look hard to find corrupt politicians or uncover cases where politics undermined efforts to pursue a public good. However, the extent and the process of that corruption is sometimes difficult to understand. Those of us not involved in politics have a hard time imagining how ordinary people could become so callous.

That’s why a show like “Designated Survivor” is so uniquely compelling. Even as a work of fiction, this show explores the complex world of politics within the most extreme of circumstances. There’s political drama, intense action, and ongoing mysteries that go beyond politics, but the latest season of the show accomplished something unique in terms of how people become corrupt.

The premise of the show starts simple. Tom Kirkman, played by Keifer Sutherland, works at the White House as a fairly low-level department head as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In terms of rank and influence, his authority is barely above that of a typical intern.

Then, prior to the annual State of the Union Speech, he gets picked for the unenviable role of designated survivor, which is a real thing. It’s a role meant to keep the government going in the worst of worst-case scenarios when there’s a catastrophic attack that kills the President, Congress, and much of the government. In the pilot episode, that’s exactly what happens.

Suddenly, this man who has never run for political office or served as an elected official is thrust into the role of President of the United States and after the worst attack in the history of the country. It’s overwhelming, to say the least. It makes for great TV drama, but it also creates a unique experiment in what power and politics do to an otherwise ordinary person.

Before Kirkman is thrust into this role, it’s established early on that he’s somewhat of an idealist. He identifies as an independent who is genuinely concerned with using the political process to pursue a public good. He also demonstrates early on that he has a strict understanding of right and wrong. For him, there’s no compromise or second-guessing when it comes to ethics.

On paper, he has the kind of character and ethics that most people want in a politician. Even the dire circumstances of his ascension are favorable because he never had to raise money from billionaires to finance his campaign. He doesn’t even have to make shady deals or back-stab anyone, which is also an all-too-common tactic in politics.

In a sense, Tom Kirkman comes into this position of power free of corruption. He is in a position where he can govern with his principles and ideals intact. This isn’t “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” This is Mr. Smith gaining unprecedented power without having to go through the corrupt process.

Throughout the first and second season of the show, Kirkman tries to do his job with his ideals intact. Whether it’s tracking down who blew up the Capitol or preventing an all-out war in East Asia, he has to constantly render difficult and weighty decisions that test his ability to keep being that affable man from the first episode.

For the most part, he succeeds on many fronts. The conflicts throughout the show often followed a common formula. President Kirkman faces a difficult issue. One side urges him to make one risky, politically-motivated decision. The other side urges something else that’s just as risky and just as political. Kirkman, unwilling to compromise his laurels, has to forge a third option.

Time and again, the integrity of his character shows. By the end of the second season, the extent of that integrity is beyond dispute. Then, the third season arrives, via Netflix, and everything changes and not just due to the sudden increase in profanity.

This season, unlike the previous two, cast aside the formula of the first two seasons, but not without reason. The entire third season is built around Kirkman running for re-election as an independent. At this point, all the good he did with respect to rebuilding the government after a devastating attack is a distant memory. It’s all politics now and this is where his integrity is pushed to the limit.

Almost immediately, Kirkman discovers that just being a man of integrity isn’t enough. The first episode of the third season really sets the tone, highlighting how easy it is for his ideals to get lost in the politics of an election. Just saying what’s true and right isn’t enough. It has to resonate with voters. That’s the only criterion that counts for anything.

His primary opponent in this season is Cornelius Moss. In the second season, he was an ally. He came in as a former president who knew the rigors of the job better than most. He was also an experienced politician. He had experienced the corrupt world of politics and he had successfully navigated it. As a result, he never comes off as having the kind of integrity and principles that Kirkman espouses.

For a while, Moss comes off as an outright villain in the world of “Designated Survivor” and in a season that introduces a full-fledged bioterrorist, no less. He conducts himself the same way most people expect a corrupt politician to behave. He doesn’t care about truth, integrity, or decency. He does whatever he must in order to win the election and secure his power.

In previous seasons, Kirkman would’ve sought a way to counter those tactics and come out with his integrity intact. It was part of what made him so respectable, as both a character and a politician. Season three makes it abundantly clear that this is not going to work this time. If Kirkman wants to win, he’ll have to compromise his principles.

Without spoiling too many plot points, I’ll just state that the conclusion of this struggle leaves Kirkman in a very vulnerable position. He’s no longer the same man he was when he became President. The attack on the Capitol that made him President was an extreme circumstance that he never could’ve known about. What happens with the election in season three is very much a byproduct of his own choices.

It doesn’t definitively answer those questions I listed earlier, but it does offer some insights. More than anything else, season three of “Designated Survivor” makes the case that the political process will ultimately corrupt anyone who gets involved. It doesn’t matter how principled or decent they are. The very nature of navigating power requires that people compromise their ideals.

It’s not just Tom Kirkman who struggles with it, either. The same supporting cast that helped him cling to his principles for the first two seasons, such as Aaron Shore, Emily Rhodes, and Seth Wright, end up compromising, as well. For some, it’s disconcerting. For others, it’s downright traumatic. In the final episodes of Season 3, the reactions of Emily Rhodes nicely mirror those who valued Kirkman’s character.

There’s now an unavoidable disconnect between what Kirkman says and what he does. Even the actions of Cornelius Moss are obscured when he too becomes a victim of shady political dealings. In the end, there’s no one left in “Designated Survivor” whose integrity hasn’t been compromised. There’s also no one left whose morals aren’t muddled by circumstances.

Even in a fictional context, the politics in “Designated Survivor” are surprisingly reflective of real-world complications. Like in the show, every political party or movement believes they’re right and their opponents are wrong. They believe in what they’re doing. They also believe that if they fail, then the wrong policies will prevail.

Conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and even anarchists are guilty of that flawed mentality. It’s one of the many reasons why politics tends to breed polarization. When people are so convinced that they’re the good guys, they become more willing to cross certain lines to defeat the bad guys. Tom Kirkman managed to avoid that for two seasons. He couldn’t in the third.

Whether or not he’s vindicated for his choices remains to be seen. Depending on whether the show gets a fourth season, it’s inevitable that he’ll face consequences for his choices. How he manages those consequences will reveal how much integrity he still has. If he plays his cards poorly, he may not have any left when all is said and done.

Designated Survivor” is a great show that explores difficult issues. Season three had its faults, but it marked a major turning point for Tom Kirkman. He is definitely not the same person he was in the show’s first episode, but he’s not quite at that point where we can say he’s lost sight of his laurels.

Both circumstances and politics did plenty to change Tom Kirkman over the course of the show. You could make the case that these forces corrupted him. After season three, you could also make the case that he’s now on the same path as Walter White from “Breaking Bad” in that these circumstances simply brought out a side of him that was always there.

Whatever the case, the ugliness of politics is something people have to navigate, both in the real world and the fictional world of “Designated Survivor.” Good people will keep trying to do good. Corrupt people will keep pursuing corrupt behavior. Politics, whatever form it takes, can only ever complicate that process.

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Another Lesson From The X-men: Does Power OR Stress Corrupt?

We’ve all heard it before, a saying so common and overplayed that our first reflex is to roll our eyes and think briefly whether those leftovers in the refrigerator are still edible. It manifests in many forms and is the theme of 98.7 percent of every movie featuring evil empires and overly rich assholes. We use many words, but most of us know the basics.

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I’ll give everyone a moment to finish yawning. I don’t blame you. As someone who has spent three quarters of his life reading superhero comics and seen nearly every movie that tried to rip off “Star Wars,” I’ve neither the energy nor the bandwidth to list all the stories that play with this theme so I’m not going to try.

Instead, I’m going to be a little bold and challenge that overplayed, overused theme that has been more belabored than a puke bucket at a bulimics convenstion. I’m also going to do it while citing X-men comics again, specifically another one featuring Jean Grey. Yes, I’m aware I’ve done that multiple times already. Yes, I’m going to keep doing that. No, I’m not going to apologize for it.

However, I’m not just going to focus on the events of a particular comic. While this post was inspired by Jean Grey #7, a comic written by Dennis Hopeless and drawn by Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, it’s the bigger picture the story highlights that I want to focus on. I still encourage everyone to read the comic, but you don’t have to in order to appreciate its theme. It’s almost subversive in the larger message it implies.

Think back to that overplayed saying about power corrupting and try, if you can, to do it without yawning. Now, ask this follow-up question and try to do it with a straight face.

“Is it really power that corrupts? Is it possible that the stress that comes along with power is the true danger?”

I hope nobody’s yawning after that because that’s not a question that gets asked very often, but it’s one that Jean Grey ends up answering in Jean Grey #7, albeit indirectly. Given that it’s a question so few ask in the first place, it’s easy to overlook, but it’s worth thinking about.

Think, for a moment, about the impact that stress has on your life. That’s much easier than thinking/fantasizing about what it would be like to have absolute power. Unlike absolute power, there is some actual science behind the effects of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, the impact of stress is basically the grand slam of negative health effects. Those effects include, but certainly aren’t limited to, nasty stuff like:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Social withdrawal

These are all issues that negatively impact your personal life, your work life, your sex life, and pretty much every other life you hope to have as a functional human being. We all endure stress on some levels, but having too much of it is kind of like being really horny. You know when it happens and it’s hard to ignore.

With those effects in mind, imagine just how stressful it is wielding great power. It doesn’t even have to be like the cosmic power Jean Grey is destined to wield in Jean Grey #7. It could be a powerful political position. It could be a powerful business leader. Hell, it could just be the power that comes with being the head of a household.

It’s somewhat paradoxical in that it seems unavoidable. Gaining more power means dealing with more stress. However, we seek power, to some extent, in order to achieve our goals. More often than not, those goals involve alleviating certain stresses on our lives, be they poverty, strife, or simple inconvenience. In a sense, we exchange one form of stress for another and hope the other is easier to deal with.

Sometimes, those hopes don’t pan out. Sometimes, the stress that comes with whatever role that power brings us is more than we expect. In that state of mind, is it really that surprising that people become corrupt?

When I talked about powerful fascist states, I noted the extent to which they have to control the personal lives of others and how that can often be used against them. Those efforts, if you ignore the egregious abuses they entail, require some pretty stressful efforts that anyone not named Dr. Doom isn’t equipped to manage.

It creates, sort of, a chicken-and-egg scenario for the corruption that often follows. Was it the power in and of itself that led that corruption or was it the stress it entailed? While I doubt every situation has the same answer, the one in Jean Grey #7 has some intriguing possibilities.

In the context of this story, the same out-of-time Jean Grey that I’ve covered in previous posts is still dealing with the prospect of a cosmic power known as the Phoenix Force coming after her. She knows it’s destined to kill her. She knows how much it corrupts her, so much so that Fox is making a movie about it. It’s a stressful situation, to say the least.

However, Jean Grey isn’t the only overly powerful character in the diverse menagerie that is the Marvel Universe. Hell, overpowered characters in Marvel probably have their own lobbying group. One of their most notable members is Wanda “the Scarlet Witch” Maximoff. Like Jean Grey, she also wields exceedingly immense power that has driven her insane on more than one occasion.

Like a friend staging an intervention for someone they care about, Wanda seeks Jean out and basically has a girl’s day with her. She shows her that obsessing over the power they wield, or are destined to wield, will drive her just as crazy as the power itself. She dares to help Jean do normal, healthy things that don’t involve stressing out over that power.

Some of those things involve stuff actual people do, like going to a beach or running on a hot sunny day. Others are a bit more exotic, like a cooking class that involves monster meat. I swear on Jennifer Lawrence’s ass that I’m not making that up.

MonsterCooking

The events of Jean Grey #7 make a compelling case about the impact of stress over power. The fact that there are other powerful characters throughout the Marvel universe that manage to function on a day-to-day basis without going insane proves, to some extent, that power and corruption need not be the same thing.

Eventually, circumstances within Jean Grey #7 that are beyond Jean’s control derail her efforts to better manage her stress. In a sense, that’s another part of wielding power and the corruption that comes with it. No matter how much power anyone has, be they a comic book character or a warlord in a third-world country, they are still at the mercy of various circumstances beyond their control.

Jean Grey, and most other superheroes, often learn that the hard way. People in real life who wield great power deal with that as well, sometimes in a very public way. Whether you’re Jean Grey or Emporer Palpatine, it’s impossible to deal with every conceivable circumstance that may undermine your power or stress you out. For some people, that just compounds the stress.

In the end, Jean Grey #7 leaves the question surrounding power, corruption, and stress unanswered. However, the fact it dares to ask that question in the first place and make a concerted effort is what really sets it apart. The original Phoenix Saga never asked that question directly, but its indirect implications reveal a lot about how we think of power, corruption, and beautiful female superheroes played by Sophie Turner.

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Thought Experiment On Democracy (The Non-Boring Kind)

I imagine that after last week, everybody is sick of politics, elections, and democracy in general. Believe me, I feel your pain. I almost long for the days when the news dedicated most of its time to what was going on with Kim Kardashian’s ass. Now that the 2016 Election is over, we can all stop fighting the urge to throw a brick at our TVs.

Now don’t worry. This post is not going to be about politics, at least not in the Anderson Cooper type tradition. I remain committed to keeping this blog relatively free of overly political bullshit that would otherwise kill the sexy mood I’m trying to create with my novels. While there are some political undertones in this topic, it’s not the kind that make most people want to beat each other to death with a sack of hammers.

This post is about something a bit more thought-provoking, at least that’s my hope. It’s another thought experiment. I’ve posed them before on this blog on other topics like disease and attitudes towards jealousy. I think it’s helpful to get people thinking about a difficult issue and this is as difficult as it comes these days.

More than anything else, the 2016 election in America highlights the flaws in democracy. It is prone to the irrational, irresponsible whims of our caveman brains. Those brains are wired in a way where we don’t give enough of a damn about what is actually true and instead go with how something makes us feel.

This is why demagogues, hypocrites, liars, cheaters, and reality TV stars can run for office and actually win. These people are smart enough to understand that the mass public doesn’t care if you’re a liar or a cheat. If you tell them what they want to hear and make them feel good, they’ll vote for you.

This is exactly why even the great Winston Churchill was critical of democracy. He said it himself.

Democracy, as beautiful a thing it is, has room for improvement. It’s definitely an improvement on the Game of Thrones style governments of the past where kings could routinely spit on peasants and shoot them for sport if he wanted. There are still tyrants in this world, but their governments tend to fail miserably in the long run. Just look at North Korea.

So rather than just throw democracy out entirely, why not give it some added polish? Why not look for ways to make it better? The Founding Fathers of America did that. People often forget that the first form of government they chose wasn’t the Constitution. It was the Articles of Confederation, which was so flawed that it didn’t even last a decade.

With that in mind, let’s channel the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and look at our current forms of government, not just in America, but all around the world. How do we improve it? How do we make it better, more efficient, and more just?

It’s a hard (if not impossible) question to answer. Many have tried though. Listverse even compiled a list of bizarre, hypothetical governments that have never been tried, but do seek to make improvements over the current system.

Some aren’t all that radical. The concept of the Perfect Commonwealth or Jeffersonian Democracy all have concepts that are fairly well-rooted in the real world, if not historically, then most certainly practically. Then, you get much weirder concepts like Liquid Democracy or Technocracy, which require more imagination than bureaucracy.

These are all interesting/strange/downright crazy ideas. So for the sake of this argument, let’s keep them all in mind as we conjure a better form of democracy. Let your imagination go a little crazy and conjure a government that might actually work in the real world.

Having done this thought experiment already in my own slightly crazy brain, I have an idea I’d like to share. It’s not something James Madison would probably approve of, but here it is. I even have a name for it.

Negative Democracy

Now don’t let the name scare you. I’m not talking about a democracy that will allow the King Joffrey’s of the world to reign supreme. I’m talking about a form of democracy that takes the current flaws, turns them upside down, and keeps them there so that the current corruption doesn’t get a chance to return.

So how does it work? Well, it goes like this:

  • There are three tiers: local, state, and federal
  • The local tier elects its leaders by popular vote
  • The state tier elects its governor by popular vote, but legislators are appointed by the local-elected officials
  • The federal tier elects its congressperson by popular vote, but the president/prime mister is appointed by a 2/3 vote by state governors
  • Every year on the first Saturday of November, the people can vote to remove any appointed and/or elected representative at any level if the vote is greater than 2/3 of the population

I know it’s basic, crude, and simplistic. I’m no Thomas Jefferson. That much, I admit. However, I make these points to highlight one key component of Negative Democracy that makes it unique.

It doesn’t focus as much on electing officials to public office as it does on removing those who don’t do a good job. Here in America, we do way too good a job at electing incompetent officials. The Constitution says a lot about how to elect these officials. It says far less about removing them.

That’s the key, Negative Democracy. You remove the incompetent, corrupt elements of government in hopes of allowing better, more qualified officials to fill the void. At some point, somebody who isn’t a total screw-up should come to power. Even politics is subject to the law of averages.

The second key is that democratic elections be held on the local and state level for the most part. Why is this important? That’s because people tend to be more in tuned with the officials in their neighborhood. They’re more likely to interact with the mayor or city council than they are a senator or a President.

As such, those local officials are closer to their constituents. They’re more likely to know them personally and when you know someone personally, you’re less likely to screw them over. It’s one thing for total strangers to hate you. For your own community to turn against you is pretty powerful. Only a select few have the ego and cruelty to try a terrible stunt like that.

Under this system, most of the federal officials are appointed and don’t have to run an election campaign. They can still be voted out of office every year if their constituents don’t like what they’re doing, but the key is they don’t run expensive, dishonest campaigns in the first place. They get appointed, they go to the capital, and they do their job.

If you think that might be prone to corruption, I don’t doubt there’s a chance. There’s a chance for corruption in every form of human-centered governance. It’s just a matter of managing the incentives to cheat as much as possible.

There’s a reason why the Judicial Branch of government in America gets less press and is often seen as the most effective branch. It gets to exercise Judicial Independence. Judges in this branch don’t have to run for office and they don’t need to be re-elected. They can, in principle, lose their jobs if they do something egregious, but those instances are rare.

So much time, energy, and money is spent on just electing officials. In a large, diverse country like the United States, that’s wholly impractical. For every country and society, the emphasis of all government should be to maintain rule of law, protect people from harm, and manage public services. It’s a difficult, if not impossible task to accomplish, but it’s too important not to be improved upon.

With this in mind, I challenge others to conduct this same thought experiment. What sort of new government system would you come up with? What would you call it? How would it work? Share it! During these trouble timed, these are definitely ideas worth exploring.

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