We Need to Ensure Political Accountability of Elected Officials

Machiavelli placed a large amount of emphasis on the fact that a prince must be seen to be a moral – but he is able act un-morally if it contributes to the good of the state or provides him with more power. He must be loved by the people and he must also be feared in order to maintain his role as a ruler of a state. Machiavelli argued that if a prince cannot be both loved and feared – it is better for him to be feared as more people would be scared to question him and afraid of the consequences that may follow. This results in more power and authority for the prince but at the same time it means that the prince is less accountable. Political accountability is when a politician makes choices on behalf of the people and the people have the ability to reward or sanction the politician through periodic elections in order to represent or act in their interest.

For the past 10,000 years or so, human society has been divided into antagonistic classes, and that has meant that morality has developed not as a general theory of human emancipation, but as a set of rules by which each class attempts to further its own interests. The most influential moral theories since the eighteenth century have tended to see morality as a necessary way of holding human impulses in check.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that ‘truth’ discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions, such as the church and the aristocracy, whose misguided traditional thinking had kept people subjected in ignorance and superstition. Immanuel Kant held that every rational being had both an innate right to freedom and a duty to enter into a civil condition governed by a social contract in order to realize and preserve that freedom. To Kant, combining free will and reason creates the capacity for free choice.

The idea that the mind plays an active role in structuring reality is called Kant’s Copernican revolution, because like Copernicus who turned astronomy inside-out by claiming the Earth moved around the sun (instead of the other way), Kant argues we must reformulate the way we think – theorizing that objective reality depends on the mind rather than the other way round (compared to Empiricists who held that all ideas, hence the entire mind comes from experience). Kant claims the structure of the mind shapes all sensory experience and thought. The mind has an active role in producing our conception of reality by acting as a filter, an organizer, an enhancer. A central component of Kant’s theory, for instance, is that morality has to control human desires in order to prevent social conflict. Underlying these views is the assumption that human beings are competitive individuals who seek their own self-interest and who will engage in a war of all against all if left to their own devices.

Kant observes that man’s capacity to reason was not his most important quality. Rather, it is the capacity of free choice which all men share, no matter how refined their reason. Kant’s democratic sensibility, however, is not based on the interests of the common man, but on the common man’s moral worth and moral dignity. Democracy can be defined as the free and equal right of every person to participate in a form of government. However, when it comes to actual choice there are a limited number of candidates, hence only certain choices. Karl Popper claims democracy is representative and not directly participatory. One’s only role is to judge and dismiss the government, a device to protect ourselves against the misuse of power. People never have any real power over politics. The best one can achieve is to determine which of a few candidates will exercise political rule over them. Democracy masks the true source of power in the hands of the few.

Nietzsche claims there are no moral facts, and there is nothing in nature that has value in itself. Rather, to speak of good or evil is to speak of human illusions, of lies according to which we find it necessary to live. He tells us “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” Knobe and Leiter take the unusual step of seeing to what degree recent experimental findings in psychology support either Nietzsche or Kant. They have little difficulty in showing that Nietzsche is largely vindicated. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards.

The elite manipulate overtly or covertly the political power. Donald Trump’s election is an illustration. Following Machiavellian formula of power, Pareto observes elites are able to manipulate and control the masses by resorting to two methods. First, elites adopt flexibility to environmental and situational exigencies. This group prefers materialistic to idealistic goals, but lack fidelity and principles, and use strategies that vary from emotional appeal to unadulterated fraud. The second method encompasses the conservative elite, bound by faith and ideology, who display group loyalty and class solidarity. Today’s Republican Party is an amalgamation of both methods of manipulation and control. Donald Trump knows how to use emotional panic to shut down the rational thinking part of our brains. In other words, when we are consumed by fear, we stop thinking. A populace that stops thinking for itself is a populace that is easily led, easily manipulated and easily controlled.

The Trump administration has engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of actions that violate laws, agency regulations, and ethical requirements, repeatedly putting its own interests before the public interest. Trump administration officials and their allies have lied to federal investigators, lied to Congress, and sought to obstruct federal investigations. These efforts constitute a direct and sustained attack on the rule of law that effectively creates two justice systems – one for the Trump administration and its allies and one for everyone else. As part of its attack on the rule of law, the administration has worked to subvert the very institutions that might hold it accountable – including the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), inspectors general, and Congress – to eliminate even the possibility of oversight. Moderate Republicans who are concerned about being outflanked by a challenger on the right may therefore fall in line with more outspoken and extreme Congress members to save their own skin.

Political accountability includes the accountability of the government, civil servants and politicians to the public and to legislative bodies such as a congress or a parliament. This is the heart of democracy, and without political accountability, the system may reduce to autocracy. The Lincoln Project is an American political action committee formed in late 2019 by a number of Republicans and former Republicans that aimed to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump, and defeat all Republicans in close races running for re-election in the United States Senate. Today the focus is on efforts to hold Trump’s enablers accountable and not allow them to pretend they were not involved. Post-Trump the Lincoln Project will likely focus on the rot at the core of the Republican Party short-term; while long-term, stake out a position as a fighting institution for the status quo, beating back the liberal left with one fist and right-wingers with the other.

The most important feature of the public sphere as it existed in the eighteenth century was the public use of reason in rational-critical debate. This checked domination by the state, or the illegitimate use of power. Rational-critical debate occurred within the bourgeois reading public, in response to literature, and in institutions such as salons and coffee-houses. The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner. Advertising and internet have invaded and corrupted the private sphere. The public sphere takes on a feudal aspect again, as politicians and organizations represent themselves before the voters. There had to be an option of last resort for holding a President who is off the rails accountable. The Founding Fathers placed that responsibility with the Senate. The Senate now has a moment where it can hold the President accountable and, in doing so, create accountability for presidencies beyond this one.

Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting efforts, at home and abroad, to undermine the right of Americans to free, fair, and fully informed self-government. Together, armed with the Constitution and the rule of law, they can renew democracy and protect it from those who would do it harm; have an ongoing role. The troubling growth in the dissemination of disinformation and hatred emanates from and exists within a digital sphere that has increasingly displaced the media systems of the past century, in which journalism organizations served as primary gatekeepers. Today, this mediation role has been largely filled by even more opaque algorithmic systems operated by global technology platform companies. There is a need to rebuild informational trust and integrity. There is a need for a special panel to examine disinformation, hate and free speech issues within the new digital public sphere to ensure political accountability.

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