2016 closes out apparently as the year of death. For many it will be remembered as the year that saw Prince, Princess Leia, and many other royalty of Hollywood and music die. It was the year that aging icons of the Baby Boom generation died and when all the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll did in many of the Baby Boomers themselves. But another death occurred this year–the death of ethics.
For many 2016 was the year of the death of democracy in the USA and across the world. Yes and no is the answer. For good or bad Brexit and Trump point to the strength of populist of democracy and a sign that main stream politics cannot ignore certain voices. For many, Brexit and Trump are only the tip of an iceberg at something more fundamentally wrong across the world
If one can define ethics to include terms such as justice, fairness, compassion, toleration, dignity, and fair play, ethics to a large extent took a major hit in 2016. It is easy to point globally and in the United States to how Trump unleashed an ugly side of American politics. He may not have caused it but he certainly helped enable, resurrect, and personify the ugly side of America that has been here since the days when we burned women as witches in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-93. It is that sense of fear and prejudice, ignorance, misogyny, that has always been part of the ugly underside of America that became perhaps mainstream and acceptable again. It reared itself in the sexism confronting Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and of course in Trump’s where his comments about women, immigrants, Muslims, and just about everyone else not WASP failed to doom his campaign but instead seemed to strengthen himself at every juncture. It’s not clear what is worse–what Trump dared to say and got away with it–or the fact for so many they said he had the courage to say what they had been thinking for so long. Trumpism simply captured the underbelly prejudice and a lack of toleration and respect that still existed in our society.
But Trumpism is merely the name for a similar way sweeping the world that features Brexit in the UK, LePen in France, and Orban in Hungary, just to name a few countries. It is about a intolerance for difference, for immigrants, and for outsiders of any shape. But these political movements are also again about the lack of human compassion for the plight of Syrian refugees and others who seek a better life elsewhere. But all of these movements are also about other forms of indifference. In the USA and across much of the world people starve, the gap between the rich and poor grows, and many are marginalized.
In the US we have an opioid addiction problem which is merely a symptom for deeper issues of poverty, yet there seems to be little interest or will in addressing these issues by either party. As some of my Democrat friends say, why should I care about these people, they voted Republican, whereas as some of my Republicans friends say, why should I care about gays, lesbians, the poor, and people of color, they vote Democrat. We cannot agree whether Black Lives Matter, Police Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter. I saw too many people I know take leave of their political and ethical senses, intolerant of political disagreement and basic facts, guilty of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. I never knew human misery and compassion wore partisan clothes, but in a polarized world they seem to now.
The death of ethics is also about political ethics. This was the year that the final vestiges of the post-Watergate reforms died. Campaign finance reform and the efforts to limit the impact of money in politics are gone. Obama helped kill it off in 2008 when he opted out of the presidential public financing system and this year neither Clinton nor Trump participated. It was also about the power lack of candor if not sometimes lying by presidential candidates this year where it became clear we have entered a post-truth, post-fact, political world dominated by fake news and by a mainstream news so anxious to survive in a for-profit journalist world that it was willing to cover anything so long as it made a dollar. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal seem shrill in both their editorials and political coverage.
Yes there is a structural component to the collapse of political ethics in terms of how money biases the political system, but it is individualistic too. Trump displays barely a modicum of respect for political ethics. His conflicts of interest test the limits of American politics. For the Democrats, the collusion of Deborah Wasserman-Schultz, the DNC, the state parties, and the Clinton campaign raise questions about fairness. Donna Brazile, working for CNN, leaked debate questions to Clinton, and displayed no remorse for her actions. And in Minnesota, members of the Sports Facilities Authority and their partisan friends and guests were clueless regarding how the allocation of tickets to the new Vikings stadium was wrong. I
If fact, no one seems to want to say that the bad behavior in 2016 was bad behavior. For those who still believe in truth, goodness, and beauty, that facts matter, and that ethics are important, 2016 was an awful year. Ethics seemed as if it were located long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
One can only hope we learn something from a horrible year and that 2017 is better.