If Mr. Smith went to Washington today, what would happen?

My dad and I had an interesting conversation last night about how an individual can have a positive effect in a system where systemic corruption is present, without succumbing to the pressure to compromise. We got on this topic because we were talking about Congress, which seems from the outside to be an incredibly brutal and corrupt cesspool of political backstabbing, wheeling and dealing, and protecting special interests to the exclusion of the citizenry. But the question is: are they all just corrupt people who decided to become Congresspeople, or does the institution of Congress incentivize well-meaning people to turn into backroom-dealing criminals? If you’re the “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”-type, how do you possibly get anything done? Congress seems a hard place for idealists. It’s all about quid pro quo, who has the purse strings, who has the dirt, who has the power. Politics in the worst way possible. It’s amazing that anything gets done.

Regardless of how it started, it seems the natural progression of such a system of power where some corruption takes hold is that honest folks don’t want anything to do with it. So the people it ends up attracting are the ones who are attracted to the power and the corruption, which only makes the problem worse. Incidentally, I think a lot of the same things are true about any position of power. The police are a stellar example. As a police department deals with criminals all day long, they gradually start to adopt a subconscious belief that all citizens are criminals on some level, and an “us-vs-them” mentality begins to set in. They overstep their bounds, they violate people’s rights, and then they try to cover it up. The worse things get, the more they attract the kinds of people who want that sort of authoritarian power for the wrong reasons, and things just continue to spiral down. And just like with Congress, you can have checks and balances, but corruption is a difficult thing to have a systemic check against, because by definition it’s a usurping of the system.

So there’s the question of how you deal with this on a societal level, but also just the personal level. Power is not inherently bad, and what do you do if you’re an honest citizen with good intentions who wants to represent your fellow Americans as a Congressperson? You’re desperately needed, but how will you actually accomplish anything when you get there? The entire system forces you to choose to either compromise and play the game, or get nothing done. How does an honest individual avoid this conundrum?

The only real answer I have for the politics question is to cultivate influence outside of the realm of politics that can still be expended within the political sphere. Money is the best example of this, though fame might work equally well. Mayor Bloomberg seems an excellent example of this; with a personal net worth of > $10 billion, he has the money to avoid fundraising and ass-kissing (for money) completely. Is this the ideal scenario? Not in the slightest; it’s disconcerting to think that maybe we live in a world where you have to be either rich, unethical, or ineffectual (though you can certainly be all three). But maybe that’s the world we live in, and if it is, denial won’t get us any closer to change.