It's said there are stages of grief. Could be five. Or seven. Or 10. The point being, in any case, that there are identifiable phases of the grieving process. Experts more or less agree it's some variation on the following theme: Denial. Anger. Guilt or blame. (This stage is full of "what ifs" and "if onlys" and some call it "bargaining," as in "I'll never do such and such ever again if I'm spared this miserable fate.) Then comes depression. Followed by acceptance.
Having lost both of my parents and two siblings in the past 10 years, I have become well acquainted with these stages. I imagine everyone goes through them in their own way and at their own pace. As a matter of fact, I experienced them differently each time I lost a loved one. But experience them I did.
There are phases of political corruption, too, and they mirror the grieving process. That's because corruption does prompt grieving. It involves a loss of innocence and, especially in Wisconsin's case, the death of good-government traditions.
At the time of the Democracy Campaign's birth in the mid-1990s and for the several years that followed, we frequently encountered denial. A great many people were taken aback by our suggestions that the increasingly large sums of money changing hands at the Capitol amounted to graft or legal bribery. If there was anger in those days, it was just as often directed at us as at the people involved in the transactions we sought to expose. We were accused of blowing things out of proportion and recklessly smearing good people. It isn't as bad as you say. Can't be. This is Wisconsin.
In due course, denial was replaced by recognition. Our characterizations of the money game stopped producing the kind of blowback we received in our early years. Increasingly anger and blame were directed at the politicians, not the whistle blowers. The remaining few with their heads buried in the sand were jarred out of their complacency when scandal visited our state. Top political leaders were paraded into court, and then briefly into jail cells.
Today I'd say we are somewhere between depression and acceptance. Many are despairing over the extent to which political corruption has taken root in our land. A growing number are starting to see it as standard operating procedure. The new normal.
So many have become so accepting of the new normal that the latest state Supreme Court election was widely viewed as a low-cost affair largely free of special interest influence. Never mind that spending on television advertising alone reached seven figures, with one side outspending the other by five to one, and with interest groups substantially outspending the candidates.
Three groups – Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors – did most of the talking in the race. All of them backed the incumbent justice, the same justice who supplied the deciding vote to approve amendments to the state judicial ethics code allowing judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters, amendments written by WMC and the Realtors.
Apologists for the new normal insisted the election was as pure as the driven snow, a classic expression of the will of the people. Nope, nothing corrupt here.
There is a school at UW-Madison named for perhaps our state's greatest political legend who famously said "the will of the people is the law of the land." Today that school is teaching students the ways of Machiavelli in a course called "Exercising Political Leadership." According to the course syllabus, the class focuses on government executives like presidents, governors and mayors and how they "accumulate and spend political capital." Confuses exercising political power with leadership. Common mistake, and one particularly in keeping with the times.
Leadership has to be the most overused and abused word in politics. No class of people boasts about leadership more than politicians do. And perhaps no class of people does less actual leading.
Lyndon Johnson wasn't leading when he signed civil rights legislation. He was following. The civil rights movement made him do it. Masses of people marched, and endured beatings, and had high-powered fire hoses turned on them, and were jailed, and in some cases gave their lives for the cause. They weren't accumulating or spending political capital, at least not consciously. They were leading. And they changed America.
Just a few short years ago, Wisconsin had an assembly speaker who stood for amending the state constitution to forever ban gay marriage and whose voice dripped with hate as he mocked "a lot of people out there who think that people should be able to marry whoever they want, or whatever they want." More than a few of his contemporaries cracked wise about how the Bible speaks of "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
Today politicians of that same stripe are scurrying for cover, dissembling here and waffling there, frantically trying to figure out a way to reposition themselves on gay rights and same-sex marriage. Are they leading? Of course not. They are reading polls. The American people are leading.
Therein lies the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to corruption. With the public's resignation comes the full embrace of corrupt practices by the political class. Corruption in this final stage produces a system so rank, so putrid, that it falls under its own weight. It has happened before. It will happen again. Don't look for the politicians to lead the way, though. They never do. They won't volunteer to leave the cesspool. They will be forced out by the people once enough of us have passed all the way through the grieving process and are finally ready to move on.