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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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According to current research, a low voter turnout serves the political establishment. As the percentage of voters drops, the probability of incumbents winning reelection rises. So the culture of scandal, Plate says, serves politicians -- even those who have been exposed -- and it serves the press, which sells more papers. The only problem, according to Plate, is that "it is sick."

Within the culture of scandal, politicians seem to be behaving worse than ever. Are they? In The Argument Culture, Tannen cites a study by political analyst Norman Ornstein showing that 12 times as many federal officials were indicted for corruption in 1989 than in 1975. But Tannen says that there is overwhelming evidence that public officials are actually more honest and responsible today than in days past.

"It is becoming harder and harder to find anyone who wants to run for public office," Tannen says. "We are losing our conception of public service, and there is a feeling that these people who are running for office must be in it for themselves. And young people are becoming less interested in the news. The perception is that the news isn't about important things -- it-s about catching people. This is part of the big disconnect between the press and politicians on the one hand and the average citizen on the other."

UCLA psychology professor David Sears points out that, although scandals like the parking-permit fraud are distasteful, they must be kept in perspective: Those that do little, if any, harm to others are in sharp contrast with other cases of barbarity and abuse of power, most recently in such global trouble spots as Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Rwanda.

"It is the nature of some humans to push the envelope," Sears says. "As a species we are not as civilized as we would like to think. Remember that Lord Acton said, 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.' That was said in the midst of Victorian England, supposedly a very cultivated society."

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