America’s ethical and moral standards have collapsed, but the expulsion of Santos shows things have the opportunity for improvement.
The expulsion of Republican George Santos from Congress this week for his myriad of lies and possible crimes is a welcome and substantial step toward rebuilding the institution’s reputation across America.
While it would have been better for Santos to resign, the vote sends a clear message that even in our age of permissiveness, not every scandal is survivable.
Joe Biden was forced out of the 1987 presidential race for plagiarizing a paper in college. The same year, Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court when it was discovered he smoked marijuana while serving as an associate professor at Harvard Law.
Fast forward to 2023, Biden is now president of the United States, and still exaggerates and embellishes frequent stories and claims. Now, weed is legal in many states across the country, and one of the industry’s most prominent lobbyists is former speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. It has been a slow drip of quiet but consequential sea changes.
In only 35 years, the ethical, moral, and professional standards for people who are the public faces of American institutions have almost entirely collapsed.
In the halls of Congress, New Jersey Democrat Senator Bob Menendez still wanders with classified materials access while under indictment for being a foreign agent. And yet, the institution does nothing.
At least House Republicans are capable of holding one of their own accountable.
In the long-revered profession of journalism, professionalism and truth have all but gone by the wayside — from the Covid-19 hysteria to Russiagate, to the more recent false story about Israel’s alleged bombing of a Gaza hospital, the New York Times sourced from Hamas terrorists. Yet again, there are no consequences.
Looking at our American public schools, and with tanking test scores across the country, instead of improving our education system, several districts have lowered the standards, often resorting to instruction focused on a radical, progressive agenda on gender and race that many families have objected to.
Choose any institution, and you will see a similar pattern. But there is something else you will also notice.
Americans surveyed in a 1979 Gallup survey showed that 34% had quite a bit or a great deal of confidence in Congress. Today, that number is a paltry 8%. During the same period, newspapers saw a drop in confidence from 51% to 18%, and public schools fell from 53% to 26%.
Another word for confidence is trust. Today, we live in a country where significant majorities don’t trust the government, their children’s school, or the news. It is unsustainable and tearing us apart.
Another way to consider trust in institutions is to feel trust in a shared realistic framework. We can address festering problems such as crime, the southern border, or education.
We have no shared basis of facts to put our confidence in. Anything we disagree with can be quickly dismissed by assuming it is offered in bad faith or is misleading.
There is no substitute for trust in our institutions. No fact-checking system or technology can hold them accountable. After all, why would we trust those any more than we trust the halls of power?
Trust must be earned — earned by the institutions themselves. The only way to do that is with significantly higher standards.
Although it seems harsh that relatively minor offenses like stealing another’s words in law school or smoking a joint at a ’70s party could disqualify a person from higher office, is it so?
Biden’s plagiarism was an early red flag. If he is capable of such an act early in his career, he is just as capable of other actions of dishonesty — influence peddling anyone?
Could it be possible that the high standard worked just as it was intended?
Suppose you are leading an educational system that continuously struggles to teach kids to do basic math or read. In that case, you should be given a pink slip, not an invitation to even greater administrative power.
Maybe if you are a news agency that prints a false account of Israel committing war crimes based entirely on the word of Hamas butchers who had only burned babies alive a few days earlier, you should never be allowed to publish again.
Until Americans again believe those with such power will face the consequences for lying and failing their constituents, like Santos, our institutions will not regain public trust.
The expulsion of George Santos from Congress is a good start. However, it is just that, a start. All institutions must set a substantially higher bar for performance and conduct, even at the risk of harsh penalties. Without it, the crucial trust will never be fully restored.