Sunday, June 25, 2006

It's all in the game

I was having a chat with my father about this morning's latest revelation in the Washington Post about the Jack Abramoff business and I got to thinking about the nature of corruption.

I have a theory of political corruption, which is somewhat simplistic but it does work generally. It seems to me that there are four kinds of corruption (Using this in a broad sense, to include anything that is a serious perversion of the political process, whether for explicit personal enrichment or not, although all four do contain elements of self-gratification):

First is the old-fashion "make me rich" stuff - run of the mill money deals like Duke Cunningham.

The second is what I would call "public good" corruption. In this, the miscreant does, at least to some degree, care about public policy and getting something done. He wants to govern effectively, but doesn't see any harm in helping himself a little bit in so doing. He justifies his graft because he's so good at making the trains run on time and getting the streets paved. This is Tammany Hall stuff. This is also, I think, where most of the Congressional fund-raising type scandals fall - the justification is that I am doing good for my constitutents and it's only natural that they should want to reward me.

The third is a "Power at any cost" type, wherein the badguy doesn't much give a damn what gets done, as long as he is the one calling the shots and receiving the rightful perks. This is Tom Delay/Marion Barry stuff.

Then there is this interesting fourth type, represented by Abramoff, Norquist, Karl Rove and some others, who have become fixated on the process and game of politics itself, divorced from any policy consequences. They may or may not have real ideological concerns and goals, in fact every example I can think of, with the arguable exception of Rove, did start with actual political and policy goals. But somewhere along the line, the game of politics has trancended any goals, or even to a large degree the wielding of power, as an end in itself. They are perpetually scheming, campaigning, playing the game. Power is not the end in itself, except to the degree that it is a material measure of winning. Once they have that power, however, they seem to be disinterested in wielding it in any significant way except to the degree that it advances their next political move. In that sense, it is similar to compulsive gambling - money ceases to be the point and instead becomes merely the vehicle to playing the next game. It is the game itself - the cards, the one-armed bandit - that becomes the end to be desired. Someone like Rove or Norquist cares very much whether he wins or loses, obviously, but unlike Delay, who just wants to be in charge no matter what, or Duke Cunningham, who just wants to drive cool cars and park his butt on nice antique chairs, these guys see winning as part of a continuum of strategy, like a football coach gone mad. This is why I quickly become suspicious of anyone whose delight in politics is too pure and childlike - if one is incapable of seeing the dark side, or the pain of the process, or of judging the actual policy consequences of politics, then there is a real problem. In this kind of world-view, everything is a game - even the personal destruction of opponents, the weakening of institutions, or the very fabric of law, custom and society - it's all part of one-upping your opponent, and nothing else matters, or even exists.

1 comment:

dogimo said...

Trenchant and lucid. This is a very nice bit of observation, Sean. You should flesh it out. Do a series of articles/essays (perhaps to be compiled and published in book form later) that track this thesis in the careers of various politicians from local petty despots to the real maneuverers of the halls of power.

No need to step on any currently-active toes. A political journalist must perforce be a historian of sorts as well. And this project might be even more istructive if approached as a research project on various forms of political addiction down through the recent ages. I wouldn't go back any further than the 1880s, and take it up only to around about the as to avoid any semblance of a "smear" on any of our current high-rankling public servants.

Save that for the sequel.