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Dr. Jim Taylor Headshot

Politicians' Ethical Race to the Bottom

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It seems like every time you turn on the TV, listen to the radio, open a newspaper, or go on line these days there is a new scandal du jour erupting, giving our sensationalism-addicted, bottom-feeding media culture a reason for being. It's gotten to be a competition to see who can shock America the most with their depraved behavior. Though professional athletes, entertainers, religious leaders, and people who are famous for being famous are doing their darnedest to win, it seems like politicians are leading the way in this ignominious Ethical Race to the Bottom. All of the contestants are doing their best to prove the axiom: "Never think too little of people, there's always less to be thought."

Politicians have always been an ethically challenged bunch. Scandals of all sorts, usually of the financial or sexual varieties, have been de rigueur among politicians for as long as America has existed. But it sure seems like the rate of questionable dealings, ethical "lapses," corruption inquiries, and outright criminal behavior has been on the upswing during the last decade. It may be that the increased influence of special interests or special relationships has lured more politicians to the dark side. Or it may simply be that our opprobrium-seeking 24/7 news cycle makes us more aware of those scandals that do occur.

As someone who leans left of center on the political spectrum, I was pleased to see the Republicans, led by an all-star team comprised of Tom Delay, Ted Stevens, Duke Cunningham, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Bob Ney, Mark Sanford, and John Ensign, take a big lead in this race during the early part of the new millennium. And I was feeling pretty darned smug about how much more ethical the Democrats were as evidenced by their success in regaining control of Congress in 2006 by campaigning against the "culture of corruption" created by the Republican party.

But my holier-than-thou attitude turned into a unappetizing helping of crow before too long. Though Republicans are a formidable and headline-grabbing team (sort of like the Yankees), I shouldn't have underestimated the more understated, though no less potent, Team Democrat when it comes to acting in ways that would make your mama ashamed she ever had you. Though they may have started more slowly in the Ethical Race to the Bottom, the Democrats have been surging of late and are making a run at the Republicans. The Democrats are actually making a real race of it by bringing some generally lesser known players (with a superstar or two thrown in) up to the plate including Charlie Rangel, William Jefferson, Jim Traficant, Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, Don Siegelman, John Edwards, Eric Massa, and Jim McGreevey.

This race is human drama at its best (or worst). There hasn't been a moment's respite in this exciting competition to see how low politicians can go in the name of greed, ego, or hormones. I have an idea. Wouldn't the Ethical Race to the Bottom make a great TV show? Given that the reality genre is the hottest property on television, it seems only natural that America deserves a new show for its salacious viewing pleasure that highlights the worst that our elected representatives have to offer. I'll run my idea by the folks at Fox.

In the meantime, who will win this Ethical Race to the Bottom? I don't know, but after eating plenty of humble pie, I'm getting to the point where I don't care. But I do know and care about who the losers will be in this race: the American people.