Tag Archives: political corruption

How Mixing Politics And Religion Ruins Both

Some things just aren’t meant to go together. Whether it involves putting pickles on a peanut butter sandwich or wearing a bra with a tube top, certain combinations are just inherently incongruent. At best, it’s messy, unattractive, or unappetizing. At worst, it does legitimate damage to everything that went into it.

In terms of volatile mixtures, religion and politics is probably the worst. There’s a reason why it’s a general rule of etiquette to avoid discussing either in a civil scenario. Both have a tendency to bring out that sense of blind tribalism that’s still hardwired into us and both have inherent flaws that keep even the most reasonable people from having a productive discussion.

That’s not to say religion and politics can never be discussed in a civil, respectful manner. It’s just exceedingly difficult, especially in these very polarized times. However, I am confident in stating that it’s practically impossible to mix religion and politics in a way that fosters greater civility. If anything, it derails any related issue beyond the point of absurdity.

I say this as someone who tries to be reasonable whenever discussing religion and politics. That’s not easy because I’ve made my criticisms of organized religion and certain political leanings quite clear. I don’t deny that I have my biases, but I make a concerted effort to see things from the other side.

When politics and religion mingle, however, I can’t justify that effort. From my perspective, there’s just no way to mix either without them becoming hopelessly corrupt.

It’s not difficult to understand why they become intermingled. Both are powerful institutions with immense influence over large swaths of people. They’re either going to coordinate or conflict with one another and coordination is almost always more productive, regardless of goals.

On paper, it almost makes sense. If you’re looking to strengthen your political position, adding religious elements that resonate with a significant segment of the populace can only help your effort. Even if those same people are skeptical of your rhetoric, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if you subscribe to the same theology.

When put into practice, however, it’s the logistical equivalent to mixing nitro and glycerin. It doesn’t take much to trigger a volatile reaction. More often than not, that one reaction triggers many more like it. Before long, the corruption isn’t just extensive. It becomes entrenched, so much so that it’s seen as entirely normal.

The best and most relevant example of this is how the religious right effectively entwined itself with conservative politics, especially in the United States. In recent years, even as religious affiliation has declined considerably, the link between religious conservatives and conservative politics has only gotten stronger, much to the detriment of both.

The history of the religious right in the 20th century is well-documented. While there had been previous efforts to effectively codify Christian dominance in the United States, it had always been a fringe position. In fact, there was a time when churches discouraged mixing religion with politics because politics was seen as a dirty business wholly concerned with worldly affairs.

Then, after a combination of major social upheavals and significant scientific advancements, organized religion became more reactionary. The rise of fundamentalism, which was not exclusive to Christianity, prompted certain religious organizations to do more than preach a more rigid form of theology.

To some extent, those organizations had no choice. There’s only so much you can do to convince ordinary people that they should be more devout, denying themselves comfort, novelty, and fun. In order to have greater influence, they need political power. However, gaining that kind of power almost always requires some level of corruption and at that level, corruption is a two-way street with many potholes and blind spots.

That’s not just an opinion held by cynics and casual observers, either. There is plenty of historical precedent that demonstrates what happens when religion and politics cooperate too closely. A cursory glance at the history of the Middle Ages offers plenty of documented evidence alongside absurd, yet historically accurate anecdotes.

It may be difficult to imagine for those who have grown up in secular societies, but there was a time when the Catholic Church was the only game in town and every political entity had to acknowledge that. They were basically a secondary government that could levy additional taxes, except they called them tithes. As an organization, their wealth was beyond measure.

On top of that wealth, the Pope could essentially make or break kingdoms by approving or denying marriages. If you said or did anything that offended, undermined, or in any way inconvenienced the church, they could do more than just condemn you. They could legally kill you and call it holy.

Regardless of the theology involved, this kind of power made the Catholic Church prone to all sorts of corruption. In some cases, it manifested in the election of Popes with decidedly unholy behavior. At one point, the papacy was actually sold between Popes like a high-stakes auction for gold and land.

While stories of organizational corruption can be comically absurd, other types of corruption did real harm. Like any powerful organization, the church dedicates a considerable amount of time and effort to preserving that power and isn’t always reasonable about it. That led to church-supported atrocities that included witch burnings, war crimes, and even animal abuse.

Again, little of these activities can be justified on a theological basis. There was nothing in the bible or the teachings of Jesus that promoted an all-encompassing organization that blurred the line between religion and politics. Most of that occurred through a convergence of various unholy forces that range from political ploys to theological debates. Conveniently, God was always on the side of whoever won out.

After centuries of corruption, other forces more powerful than any prayer or Pope eroded the influence of the Catholic Church. Some would argue that losing the power to make war and influence kings helped get the church in touch with the core teachings of Christianity. I think that’s a tenuous argument, given how dogmatic it is on certain outdated traditions, but I do see some merit in it.

Even with this historical precedent, the religious right keeps making a concerted effort to wield the kind of power that the Catholic Church once did. You need only compare the Republican Party’s platform in 1912, which contained no reference to any deity, to the overtly anti-demographic policies espoused in contemporary Republican talking points.

It’s in that blending of policy and theology in which both ultimately undermine one another. From the religious side, there’s nothing in the bible that demands tax cuts for the rich or bans in stem cell research. However, thanks to being entertained with conservative politics, this somehow becomes entwined with their theology, even if it means ignoring actual teachings of Jesus Christ.

From the political side of things, it means policies don’t even have to have a logical, pragmatic element to them anymore. They can only be viewed in the context of whether or not said policies get or maintain the support of religious adherents. Even when those policies are objectively bad for the environment and the poor, they support them. They’ll even support policies that require a big, bloated government by default.

In a sense, for religion and politics to function alongside one another, both require significant levels of hypocrisy. A religion will have to support policies that run counter to its theology and a political organization will have to support measures that run counter to its principles. The only way to make that work is to make excuses, which only invites corruption.

These aren’t minor complications. These are flawed processes that ensure neither religion nor politics can benefit without undermining themselves along the way. Anything they accomplish must come at the expense of principle or ideology. For conservative politics and religious dogma to pursue their goals, it must in turn use the same draconian tactics of Big Brother, even when it directly contradicts their highest values.

From that perspective, should we really be surprised when politicians with the backing of the religious right turn out to be utter hypocrites?

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Is It Us Or The Politicians? How “Parks And Recreation” (Hilariously) Explores Corruption And Those Who Enable It

Throughout the history of television, the best shows are often the ones that resonate with audiences through different eras, cultures, and places. It’s one thing for a show to be a hit when it’s on the air. It’s quite another for a show to still have appeal many years later.

Within that rare collection of TV shows with that special level of appeal, “Parks and Recreation” is in a class of its own. It started as a generic rip-off of “The Office.” It eventually developed into one of the most beloved and endearing TV shows of the past several decades.

Personally, it’s one of my all-time favorite shows. The recent reunion special only reminded me how much I loved it. I’ve gone out of my way to praise it in the past, from highlighting the respectable ideals of Ron Swanson to celebrating the joyous spirit of Leslie Knope. There are many more lovable characters on this show that are worth highlighting. I could write entire articles on the secret appeal of Jerry Gergich.

For now, I want to highlight another element of “Parks and Recreation” that I believe has become much more relevant lately. At the rate we’re going, we’ll come to see certain themes in “Parks and Recreation” as prophetic warnings, of sorts. It might not be as prophetic asThe Simpsons,” but it’s still critical, given the current state of affairs.

To understand the importance of those themes, take a moment to think about politicians. I’ll give everyone’s inner Ron Swanson a moment to endure the nausea. What ideas and images come to mind when you think of politicians? What’s the most common perception that most people would agree with? If you walked up to a random person, they’ll probably describe politicians as follows.

They’re all corrupt.

They’re all crooks.

They’re all power-hungry.

They’re all evil.

They’re all arrogant.

They’re all narcissistic.

They’re all greedy.

They’re out to steal our money/land/guns/rights/whatever someone happens to value.

It’s easy to have negative perceptions about politicians. To their credit, they do plenty to affirm those perceptions. You don’t have to look hard to find cases of laughably corrupt or downright evil politicians who couldn’t care less about their constituents. It’s enough to make understand where Ron Swanson is coming from when he brilliantly chastises government.

That said, there’s another side of the story that rarely gets explored. A big part of the comedy in “Parks and Recreation” stems directly from how it explores the challenges that governments face. It doesn’t avoid cases in which government officials behave in deplorable ways. It also doesn’t avoid the role the voting citizens play in enabling those same officials.

It’s the lesser known, but equally distressing aspect of government corruption. It’s not always the case that they just muscle their way into positions of power. In fact, it’s not that uncommon for these deplorable human beings to be legally elected to office. Some don’t even need to rig the vote. They’re able to win within the existing democratic institutions.

That’s the case for multiple politicians in the world of “Parks and Recreation.” Some characters are so laughably scandalous that it’s easy to forget that some of them were inspired by real-world events. However, this only compounds the underlying issues that the show explores, both directly and indirectly. At the heart of those issues is a simple question about the nature of government corruption.

Is it us, the people, or the politicians who foster corruption?

It’s not a strict either/or question with a clear answer, but it’s one that “Parks and Recreation” does more than most shows to explore. Take, for instance, the chaotic town hall meetings that the department holds in multiple episodes. Just look at how the citizens of Pawnee conduct themselves.

Some of these people are just obnoxious. Others are downright malicious. However, every one of them still votes. They’re the ones who ultimately decides who gets elected and who wields the power in their city. As a result, the many absurdities surrounding the fictional city of Pawnee tend to reflect that sentiment.

Throughout the show, the citizens of Pawnee aren’t depicted as exceptionally informed. They often make unreasonable, absurd demands. They’re quick to react and cast blame on others. They hold government officials to impossible standards. Even genuine, sincere public servants like Leslie Knope get attacked for not delivering, even when their requests are unreasonable and/or misguided.

On top of that, many of these same people are easily swayed by corrupting influences. In Season 5, Episode 2, “Soda Tax,” Leslie works with her good friend and competent nurse, Ann Perkins, to implement a soda tax that would curb the sale of exceedingly unhealthy soda consumption. It’s based on a real-world proposal. It addresses a real-world health issue. It’s the kind of thing you’d want a caring government to address.

Even so, the Pawnee Restaurant Association restaurant lobby rallies the people against it. Even though it passes, it ultimately plays a part in Leslie being voted out of office in a recall election during Season 6. That means her reward for trying to do public good is to lose her job while those mired in multiple sex scandals continue to hold power.

Take a moment to think about the bigger picture. In every season in “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie Knope conducts herself as an ideal politician who simply wants to do good for her community. She has to fight, tooth and nail, just to get elected in Season 4. Even when she does good by her citizens, they still vote her out.

Leslie dares to tell the truth and be honest with the people. Others, like Jeremy Jamm and Bill Dexhart, simply tell people what they want to hear and/or hire the right people to manipulate the public. They don’t force the public to vote a certain way. They don’t even rig the votes because, in the end, they don’t have to. The people are swayed by the necessary forces and vote accordingly.

Now, you can make the claim that the people of Pawnee are more gullible than most and, as the show often depicts, it would be a valid observation. They still have the power of the vote. They’re still the ones who ultimately make the choice to elect or depose public officials like Leslie Knope or Jeremy Jamm.

Politicians do all sorts of shady things with their power, but that power is still contingent on the will of the people, to some extent. Are the people not somewhat responsible for enabling the corruption that they so deplore? The plot and themes of “Parks and Recreation” don’t attempt to provide a definitive answer, but the show makes a relevant observation that has become even more relevant in recent years.

There are multiple real-world cases of people voting against their own interests for reasons that often confound outside observers. Even an alleged child predator managed to get 48.4 percent of the vote in his state in running for the United States Senate. Even though he lost, the margin for his loss was so narrow that it’s disturbing to think that people are willing to put a man like that in a position of power.

That’s not to say that the people who voted for such a deplorable human being are bad people. Chances are they either didn’t believe in the allegations levied against him or simply voted for him out of loyalty to a political party. Given the limitations of the democratic system, sometimes people are simply left with two bad choices and have to pick the one that’s least awful to them.

Limitations aside, the fact remains that very few of these corrupt politicians would be in positions of power if people just didn’t vote for them. Even if they had power, they wouldn’t have much influence if those same people didn’t support them, even if they aren’t overly corrupt. It’s why politicians often pander to their base supporters so much. They need that support, even if they’re corrupt.

Since “Parks and Recreation” went off the air, people have only become more politically divided. The rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum has gotten increasingly extreme and the COVID-19 pandemic only made it worse. Both politicians and the voters are guilty of conducting themselves as arrogant assholes. Thanks to the internet and social media, this conduct is being captured for everyone to see.

There’s a lot of ugliness to go around in politics. Part of what made “Parks and Recreation” so endearing was how it forged humor in that environment. In doing so, it also shed some light on the absurdities surrounding politics, democracy, and society in general. It didn’t hide from the flaws. The show even magnified them in many cases.

As real-world politics gets uglier and meaner, the insights within the characters and plots of “Parks and Recreation” may prove more impactful in the long run. The show will always be funny, if only for the moments involving Ron Swanson and Jean-Realphio. It’ll give us a chance to laugh at how corrupt elected officials can be, but it won’t hide the fact that we still voted for them.

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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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