Judge a democracy by its scandals
Politicians behave badly. It's how we react that defines our democracies.
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In Scotland, a senior government minister was recently forced to issue a tearful apology on the floor of the Scottish parliament. “Disclosing this information about our family has been extremely difficult,” he said, his voice breaking as he spoke. “Mistakes have been made. By me. By my family. And mistakes have been made in the way I have handled this…I hope members will accept my explanation…and my unreserved apology.”
From that speech, you’d expect a depraved sex scandal, or perhaps a grotesque bout of nepotism.
But no, the real scandal was much more banal.
While the politician, Michael Matheson, was on holiday with his family in Morocco, his children got access to his official government iPad and used it to stream a football (soccer) match. In the process, they racked up 11,000 GBP ($14,000 US) of data roaming charges in the span of a few days. Oops.
Matheson then made the boneheaded decision to seek reimbursement for the charges, which is what got him into hot water (he’s since paid the full bill himself and apologized). It became the biggest political story in Scottish politics. And Matheson still faces a chorus of calls to resign.
It’s an excellent sign that such a comparatively minor scandal provoked such a strong response.
This Scottish scandal teaches us a valuable lesson: scandals are a useful proxy for the health of democracy. How a society deals with its political scandals is a reflection of democratic integrity. Some pass the test with flying colors. Others, not so much.
In every country on Earth, politicians behave badly. Some lie, cheat, and steal. They deceive the public. They abuse their power and engage in quid pro quos. Power is a magnet to the corruptible – and they are often further corrupted by power. Even if we build better systems, political scandal is inevitable, a seemingly unavoidable feature of life.
The question, then, is how we respond. Compare the Scottish example with any recent American one. In Scotland, you’ve got a guy who faces such strong backlash that he ends up in tears in parliament while trying to explain that he wrongly tried to get paid back when his kids racked up a mammoth video streaming bill to watch sports on vacation.
Meanwhile, take your pick of any modern American scandal, and it’s the political Wild West. George Santos literally invented his entire life story and lied to voters about who he was and why he was qualified to serve. But wait, there’s more! He also allegedly embezzled campaign funds to pay for Botox and subscriptions to OnlyFans accounts for his personal pleasure. Until last week, Santos faced zero consequences for years, even though anyone in a normal job would be instantly fired for his conduct.
Likewise, insider trading is rife in Congress, where elected officials improperly cash in on the information they’re given to get rich(er). Few are ever held accountable. Senator Bob Menendez, a Democratic Senator from New Jersey, is accused of taking bribes; investigators found half a million dollars in cash and $100,000 in gold bars in his house, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And the revolving door between politicians and the influence peddling they do after leaving office is a disgusting—but tolerated and normalized—spectacle of public life in the United States.
Then, there’s the man who seems to be a bipedal scandal, still standing upright despite a lifetime of grotesque malfeasance. Donald Trump is now facing the prospect of accountability in the courts for his alleged 91 felonies, but how many thousands of other political scandals—scandals which would and should topple politicians in most other democracies—has Trump survived unscathed?
When citizens consider political scandals, they tend to make two serious cognitive mistakes in evaluating their importance.
First, they think about the scandal purely as a reflection of a bad person.
Second, they think about scandals—and consequences to them—exclusively through the lens of their immediate political ramifications rather than their long-term effects.
Both of these errors miss why scandals matter—and why they are such a good proxy for democratic health.