The poison at the bottom of the American well
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is currently probing whether Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, did anything improper. Sunak is being investigated by that official watchdog after he failed to tell MPs his wife owned shares in a childcare firm boosted by the official budget.
Lest you think Sunak’s troubles are nothing but a storm in a teacup, his premiership was preceded by that of Liz Truss, who resigned after only forty-five days in office in the midst of protests over her disastrous budget. Before that, former PM Boris Johnson resigned in a storm of protests about the so-called Partygate Scandal and other subsequent missteps, miscalculations and scandals.
Say what you like about the British government (and believe me I do), it would seem that here, at least, the mechanisms for discovering and summarily discarding wrongdoers is alive, relatively healthy and unquestionably functioning.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the 1922 Committee (created for backbenchers to keep frontbenchers in line), the Crown Prosecution Service and other policing and regulatory bodies each have real power that’s really used on political bad guys in the real world. If you find yourself running afoul of them you have every reason to sweat. Not only can you lose your job you can lose it quickly.
What’s more, there are no conspiracy theories swirling around these actions, no cries of fake outrage, no Parliamentary committees empanelled for the political stuntism of investigating why the Commissioner for Standards isn’t engaged with REAL work catching REAL wrongdoers. While individual politicians may be corrupt, the mechanism for self-correction is not, or at least, not very much.
So it’s with considerable head-scratching that American public servants of the likes of Clarence Thomas are regarded over here. That a man who is so obviously corrupt and has so many obvious conflicts of interest could remain in office relatively unmolested doesn’t seem possible. It is thought by many here that something is broken about the American system of self-policing. And so it is.
The problem begins as one of simple standards. The standards for people in power in America, from presidents to Supreme Court justices to members of Congress is spectacularly low. George Santos wouldn’t survive in Parliament for five minutes. Donald Trump wouldn’t have made it two months. Indeed, they and others like them would have never been elected in the first place.
Why is that? What is so special about Britain? Why can’t America give bad guys the old heave-ho the way they do it over here? Ask David Cameron. When the former prime minister confidently but disastrously put the question of Brexit to a vote and lost he immediately resigned. There was no pawning off of responsibility to others. No whataboutisms. And no one was surprised when he resigned, either. It was expected. He’d made a political miscalculation and he fell on his sword for it. Why do such things routinely happen here but almost never in the USA?
I think I might know why. Even though America has separation of church and state baked into its Constitution, the agenda of the evangelical radical right is a constant, menacing thorn in the side of American politics. Here, by contrast, the head of state is also the head of the Church of England, yet religion plays virtually no role at all in government. It is a paradox that America and Britain should be exact opposites in this. But they are.
In American radical right politics just about everything is judged by religion. And everything is defended by religion as well. Once a politician is deemed a member of the tribe of evangelicals, he or she can do no wrong.
No one cares what religion you are in Britain, if indeed you have any religion at all. For example, as I sit here without consulting Wikipedia or Google, I have no idea what religion Rishi Sunak is. Hindu, as it turns out. Until this moment it never occurred to me to wonder. Yet I know immediately that Joe Biden is a Catholic, as is Clarence Thomas. Donald Trump is a secret atheist who pretends to be an evangelical Christian, and so on. In the game of American religious musical chairs, everybody had better find a seat or they get eliminated from the game.
The poison at the bottom of the American well is religion. The USA has no chance of recovering from the blight of corruption until religion is thoroughly and completely eradicated from American politics.
That is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Ignorance, rampant belief in conspiracy theories and an almost pathological absence of critical thinking in large swathes of the American population must also be eradicated. America has a long, painful road ahead, and that road must be paved with education. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.