If “Scandal” is too much of a soap opera for you, try Netflix’s “House of Cards,” where murder and blackmail are also portrayed as standard tools of statecraft. As far as I can tell, the plot of “Designated Survivor” is just one giant conspiracy theory along 9/11 Truther lines, in which a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol turns out to be an inside job.
This is just a recent sampling. We’ve soaked our culture with the idea that our government works by secret conspiracies, then we’re surprised when people take this notion seriously. And we just switch it back and forth, with the party out of power always imagining the secret machinations of the party in power. Or maybe the other way around.
For those who are not ready to go so far as to imagine secret murders and Muslim Manchurian candidates, there’s always a more genteel version: viewing every public policy debate as a manifestation of the other side’s desire to promote some nefarious, hidden business interest. Anyone not secretly in the pay of George Soros must be secretly in the pay of the Koch Brothers.
I am not arguing that there is no corruption in government. My point is that the biggest corruption is a lot more prosaic and conducted out in the open: buying our votes by promising us free stuff, or pandering to voters by flattering their biases and preconceptions. Facing up to that kind of corruption mean asking whether we’re allowing ourselves to be lied to because a politician is telling us what we want to hear. It involves serious examination of the rational basis of our own beliefs.