March 31, 2021
The Utah media (social and traditional) have been abuzz with the accusations of six women of being bullied, demeaned and harassed amid a toxic culture toward women candidates that was allegedly cultivated by now-former Salt Lake County Republican Party Chair Scott Miller and his lieutenant Dave Robinson. Political leaders in both parties and at all levels have rightly spoken out in defense of the women who came forward to news media with their stories and have condemned the alleged behaviors of Miller and Robinson.
One important lesson from this disturbing story is the potential for politics to corrupt people – and the civic virtue required to ensure a healthy democratic republic despite such influences.
Political history illustrates the potential for politics to reward those willing to do anything or say anything to gain power. From Roman rulers murdering their political enemies, to medieval power brokers switching sides in civil wars, to American politicians switching parties when the political sea tide changes, politics has always shown a potential to reward some people who show a particular willingness to set aside moral or ethical scruples in their quest for power.
Such seems to be part of the story in the case of the leadership of the Salt Lake County Republican Party. It appears that a party leader came into a position of authority with the help of a political colleague willing to engage in ethically questionable behavior, especially toward female candidates – to the point of threatening the political careers of women who did not toe the line. In return, the party leader apparently protected his colleague when accusations about the latter’s behavior were reported. Both political antagonists in this story sought to parlay these tactics into greater levels of influence – one to the Salt Lake County mayor’s office and the other to state leadership of Utah’s dominant political party.
These kinds of corrupt behaviors from political leaders – ruthlessly attacking and oppressing potential political threats and threatening to withhold support essential to gaining office from potential political opponents – are poison to a healthy republic. They can create a perception among the public that political leaders prioritize their own interests above all else and that elected office is determined as much by the corruption of the political leaders as the voice of the people.
So how do we prevent the corrupting influences in politics from destroying democracy?
Part of the answer is found in the institutions of our civic fabric and system of government. Political power is diffused between the branches and levels (i.e. state vs. federal) of government in order for one branch/level to check the corruption in another. But another part of the answer is civic virtue.
Alexander Hamilton, for instance, in The Federalist Papers argued for “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue” in American presidents. He also argued for “fit character” as an essential capacity to encourage and develop in federal judges. The framers recognized the shortcomings in human nature that would always leave people susceptible to the corrupting potential of politics – hence the critical importance of the diffusion of political power and checks and balances. But they also noted that civic virtue remained a necessity in political leaders if America’s democratic republic were to not only survive, but thrive.
So as Utahns seek to move forward (and hopefully upward) from the unfortunate tale of Miller and Robinson, we should recognize the need to understand civic virtue and cultivate it in ourselves and our political leaders to prevent corrupting influences in politics from running amok. Leaders must be chosen not simply for their fundraising prowess or their communications savvy, but for the capacity developed by their character to use money and messaging in the service of the people they represent, instead of simply in pursuit of their personal agendas for power, money and influence.
This does not seem to have occurred with the elevation of Miller and Robinson to positions of political authority in Salt Lake County. We can, and we should, correct that this time around.
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