Do We Need More Honesty in Politics?
Trump, Santos, Ziegler, and COP28
This weekend, former President Donald Trump called President Biden "the destroyer of democracy." Needless to say, it was Trump who tried to overturn the democratic election victory of Biden.
It's an example of dishonesty in politics, and Trump's career is full of it. The Washington Post documented more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during Trump’s presidential term, a staggering average of 21 per day.
Trump said this weekend to a crowd of supporters in Iowa that the four criminal indictments against him show Biden is abusing the federal justice system against him. "He's been weaponizing government against his political opponents like a Third World political tyrant." I guess the Washington Post can continue its count: 30,001.
Unfortunately, he is not alone. Although a cornerstone of democracy should be a high level of trust by the voters in their elected politicians, including that they will deliver on their promises, they often don't get what they choose.
Speaking of dishonesty, there are rare moments where there is a level of bipartisan agreement about crossing the limits of acceptable behavior. I wish the bar of honesty would lie far higher. Still, last week's expulsion of George Santos from the House of Representatives proves that no bar is low enough to avoid a politician limboing underneath it.
Santos' lies are so numerous that it's hard to imagine he got elected. Most of his identity and resume were fabricated, including referring to his family suffering in the Holocaust and on 9/11. The Justice Department indicted him with about two dozen federal charges, such as using campaign contributions for personal expenses or unemployment benefit collection.
Perhaps for the first time in his life, Santos is now trying to earn an honest income by selling his notoriously dishonest image. He makes videos for Cameo, where he can, for instance, speak a birthday wish for 200 dollars. To remind you what a celebrity asset he is to ask for such amounts of money, he proudly wrote in his bio: "Former congressional 'Icon'!" and: "The Expelled member of Congress from New York City."
I'll briefly halt my line of thought to state that I'm not deliberately focusing on the GOP; it just so happens that all these examples involve Republicans.
Let's go to Florida, where hypocrisy has reached new lows now that we know that Bridget Ziegler, one of the three co-founders of Moms for Liberty, has had a bisexual relationship for years.
That should generally be none of my or your business, where it is not that she is an author of the Don't Say Gay Bill and her organization has targeted hundreds of books in Florida schools to be removed for no other reason than that there is a gay character in the book. Her husband, Christian Ziegler, is the Chairman of Florida's Republican Party. It was a rape accusation against him that got these details out. I have zero interest in their personal lives, but enjoying at home what you discriminate against others for is a blatant example of political dishonesty.
Dishonesty and the fossil fuel industry seem to be synonymous. The world's biggest oil and gas companies knew decades ago precisely how dangerous the emissions of greenhouse gasses would be for life on this planet. Instead of warning policymakers and the public, they hid the evidence and let this global disaster develop. Worse, they financed campaigns to let everybody believe that the climate scientists were wrong.
In the past few days, news confirmed that this culture hasn't changed. COP 28 is chaired by the same man who runs the state-owned Abu Dhabi oil company, Adnoc. This conflict of interest led to the unique situation in which the climate conference chairman publicly stated that there is "no science" behind the call to phase out fossil fuels to keep average global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Yesterday, trying to control the fallout, he suggested he did not say what he can be heard saying on the video.
The New York Times quotes Al Gore from an email about the video: "From the moment this absurd masquerade began, it was only a matter of time before his preposterous disguise no longer concealed the reality of the most brazen conflict of interest in the history of climate negotiations," and he added: "Obviously, the world needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible."
Is honesty possible in politics?
It leaves me to ponder if honesty is possible in politics, or I might as well ask if politics is possible without moral values. The spectrum between blatant lies and a half-truth is broad and diverse. Add to that the complexity that we judge some politicians more harshly on telling a lie than others; it seems that telling more than 30,000 lies is a recipe to expect more leniency from the voters when you are again dishonest.
Is good governance possible in full transparency? If so, why aren't journalists allowed to listen to backroom negotiations? These questions are hard to answer but highly relevant at a time when progressive politicians fail to convince the voters that unpopular measures are needed. How do we persuade most voters that we can't continue to fly to exotic holidays, eat meat every day, and generally need to consume less?
It makes the honest story of our time less attractive than the fairy tale of continuing our destructive way of using our planet. The right-wing populists play on these sentiments by constantly referring to an imaginative past when everything was better. It is the easy story to sell, underpinned by lies about witch-hunts, the risks posed by minorities, or by misquoting scientists.
The challenge for progressive politicians is to tell the truth about our dire situation on this planet. They should do so honestly but not forget to include a positive perspective by focusing on the benefits of better policies: a healthier, equal, peaceful, and beautiful planet for us and our children.
It's a story that sounds like a cool alternative to an overheating planet.
And it's an honest story to tell for politicians.
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