Voters must hold politicians accountable
Nevins is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and co-founder and board chairman of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
As often happens these days, last week a friend of mine was quite angry by something his member of Congress did and vented his dissatisfaction to me:
“The problem with Congress is that these bums are accountable to no one. They do whatever they want and get away with it. If I acted like them at my job I’d be fired.”
My general feeling about the high level of dysfunction and lack of accountability by our elected representatives is pretty low so it was easy for me to support my friend as he vented. But upon further reflection, the concept of “accountability” as related to the function of our government intrigued me.
The first thing that popped into my head was my parents teaching me the importance of being accountable for my actions. I was taught at an early age that my actions have consequences for myself and others. Understanding the importance of acknowledging when I made a mistake was a hallmark of my upbringing.
And of course there were consequences. If I was bad I would be deprived of something. In school if I did something bad I was admonished with a warning from my teacher that my behavior would be on my permanent record.
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As I reflected, I realized these basic principles of personal responsibility that we expect of our children are rarely expected or enforced upon our elected representatives. Lying seems to be acceptable, since of course all politicians lie, and abhorrent behavior is excused because the ends justify the means. As tribalism and partisanship ramps up it is so much easier for politicians to reject any responsibility for the consequences of their words, personal behavior, and decisions.
Ideally I would hope that our leaders would meet the highest standards of accountability. However, this is simply not the case. Instead, all too often they deflect and place blame on their opponents, the media or anyone they can rather than accept individual responsibility.
In theory, in a representative republic such as ours our elected representatives are accountable to the American people since their job is dependent on the support of the people.
Thomas Paine recognized this at the time of our nation's founding when he said:
“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
Unfortunately, throughout our history voters simply have proven not to care or believe themselves unable to hold politicians to account. A free press is one of our most sacred freedoms since information is vital to holding elected representatives accountable. Yet in the high tech social media world of today sorting through what is fact based versus political rhetoric requires a level of inquiry and thought that most Americans simply choose not to do. Many of us are abandoning our civic responsibility to stay informed and thus perhaps are getting what we deserve.
After all, for democracy to succeed it must not be a spectator sport.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Government Accountability Office (GAO). This investigative arm of Congress and the congressional watchdog theoretically supports the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibility of acting for the benefit of the American people but has no real power as Congress ignores many of their recommendations. Additionally, rarely are GAO’s ignored recommendations reported in the press.
What is publicized are the countless partisan Congressional hearings in which members of Congress do what they do best; voice outrage about the actions of other members of Congress or those in the executive branch. Rather than building effective mechanisms of accountability that advance government effectiveness, resolve present problems or prevent future malfeasance, in the end most hearings become a theater of the absurd in which the party in power uses this exercise in accountability for political gain. We have devolved to reward performative, rather than substantive efforts. The party in power controls the hearings and thus uses the hearings as a powerful communications tool to shape their agenda as an opportunity to seek revenge against the minority party who did the same thing to them when they were the majority. This endless cycle continues.
The lack of accountability problem is enhanced by a system that does not put voters first. Gerrymandering in the United States has resulted in most members of Congress being virtually immune from voters holding them accountable. Polls consistently show that while a vast number of Americans think Congress is dysfunctional, 90% of members of Congress still get re-elected. And the parties have, in most states, discarded any attempts at citizen drawn legislative maps; in essence picking their voters. This must change so voters come first and politicians have the incentives to act responsibly.
The level of absurdity related to accountability has reached new highs with the election of Congressman George Santos from New York who is almost unanimously considered to be a liar and total fraud, yet he still serves in Congress without any apparent move to sanction him.
Of course Santos is not alone. President Trump lied so much that a truth index was created to count the number of lies he made monthly and of course that was dismissed by supporters who rationalized this lack of accountability by saying, “well, all politicians lie.” Trump brazenly, and without shame, took lying to a new level; in plain view for all to see. He has yet to be held accountable.
As we think about the lack of accountability by politicians perhaps we should do some self reflection. Are politicians merely a reflection of a larger lack of accountability in today’s society? A Pew research report finds that Americans struggle with truth, accuracy and accountability. The 2019 report finds that “America is experiencing a crisis in facts and truth, and they believe this problem ties into the current state of distrust people have in institutions.”
In my next writing I will explore the extent to which accountability in America has declined or changed and to what extent that change impacts our democratic republic. There is no doubt being accountable for our actions is not easy. It requires mindfulness, honesty, and acceptance of others. And oftentimes requires courage and what might be called courageous accountability.