“Good government is the outcome of private virtue.”
—John Jay Chapman, Practical Agitation
When Christine Keeler died this past December 5 at age 75, a predictable welter of obituaries poured forth, most no doubt having been drafted in readiness decades ago when her fame was established. Central to that dubious fame was a series of lovers Keeler bedded 55 years ago, at age 19, including among others both Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché (and likely spy) in London and Baron John Profumo, the 46-year-old (and married) Conservative Secretary of State for War. This, it was averred, created a potential security risk.
Like all good scandals, this one burned slowly and climaxed dramatically. Profumo initially made a public denial to Parliament that he had engaged in any “impropriety,” threatening to sue for libel any newspapers that published rumors of the affair. But in a series of lurid twists and turns over the next two years, involving a high-class prostitution ring, lowlife beatings, some rare gunplay, and a high-profile suicide, the truth eventually dribbled out. Finally, Profumo was forced to admit the truth in June 1963.
Not only was Profumo himself compelled to resign, the drama soon toppled the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who was deemed to have been, in the words of the Spectator, “either ludicrously naive or incompetent or deceitful—or all three” for having maintained his confidence in Profumo as evidence mounted of his guilt. In what was commonly called the greatest political scandal in modern British history, the whole episode seemed to many both to symbolize the debauchery and hypocrisy of the British Establishment and to herald the coming of the sexual liberation of the so-called Swinging Sixties, for which Keeler became an odd but inevitable symbol. The Conservatives spent most of the next 15 years in the political wilderness.
But what happened after the scandal ran its course is in some ways the most interesting part of the whole story.
Profumo himself was genuinely contrite. After resigning from the government, the Baron volunteered to work as a toilet cleaner at Toynbee Hall, a charity based in the East End of London that aimed to bridge the class divide in Britain by encouraging rich and poor to live together. He continued to work there for the rest of his life, for forty years, though he later moved over to the fundraising department. His wife, likewise, dedicated her life to charity and good works.
In other words, Profumo took responsibility for his misbehavior. He agreed to abase himself from his class privileges in order to make amends for how he had wronged various people, as well as harmed the integrity of British political life.
Can anyone imagine one of today’s elites behaving in such a manner?
Perhaps the most insidious threat facing Western democracies has been the progressive decline of elite accountability and responsibility. “Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous),” David Brooks observed in 2012. “They have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends upon; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.” This “hollow elite,” as Charles Murray called it in Coming Apart, is doubtless one element of the rise of populisms across the Western world—nor are such observations restricted to right-of-center critics.1 Poll after poll shows a collapse of ruling-class credibility, particularly among the young, and an increasing inclination to embrace strongmen who promise accountability and results.
This collapsing support for democratic political culture is part of a larger collapse in trust in institutions. Data from Gallup shows that, over the past four decades, Americans have displayed ever less confidence in many of the major institutions in American life: churches (those expressing a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence dropped from the mid-60s in the early 1970s to the low 40s today), Congress (from the 40s to the single digits), public schools (from the 50s to the 30s), banks (from the 50s to the 20s). News organizations, medical organizations, big business, and the presidency have also seen drops, if not quite as dramatic.
The two major exceptions are the military and small businesses—tellingly, both institutions whose leaders are often seen as taking (or perhaps having no choice but to take) responsibility for failure. In other words, it’s not so much the failure to perform that costs institutions credibility as it is the failure to hold leaders accountable when their institutions fail. For better or worse, fair or not, we’ve seen more than a few military leaders get sacked for various improprieties, and everyone knows a small business owner who’s personally taken it in the chops when business declined. But a bank CEO jailed for massive fraud that ruined the lives of countless families? Too big to indict.
Where did this disastrous and growing lack of elite accountability come from? Certainly, U.S. elites during the postwar years (1940s-60s) made their share of mistakes. But for the most part, when they screwed up, they were held to account and paid a personal price. Consider the architects of the Vietnam War. After 1969, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow was drummed out of public life. General William Westmoreland was sent packing. (Secretary Robert McNamara, who was sent over to the World Bank from the Defense Department in 1968, was a partial exception—not that his performance improved there.) The only senior foreign policy officials from the Johnson Administration that President Jimmy Carter brought back in 1977 were Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance, both of whom had resigned from senior positions in the Johnson administration in protest over the escalation of the Vietnam War. For Carter, accountability mattered.
While anything as large and long a trend as the decline in elite accountability in general, and the attendant loss in confidence in institutions, necessarily entails complicated causal explanations,2 one important dimension to the story concerns political elites, the most visible form of the species, who in many respects set the moral tone within secular society.
Here, inevitably, the story must begin with Richard M. Nixon.
The Nixon Administration was famously felonious. More than forty administration officials ended up indicted, most in connection with the 1972 theft of documents from the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and subsequent cover-up. Dozens were convicted and received jail time, including Attorney General John Mitchell and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. But the Criminal-in-Chief was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. This, I believe, is the political seed of the lack of elite accountability that has only sprouted and grown in ensuing decades.
Despite Nixon’s pardon, however, enough elite political accountability remained so that during the Abscam scandal of the early 1980s several members of Congress ended up doing jail time. But the next major blow to elite accountability, which took place in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal that unfolded under President Ronald Reagan, represented a further descent. In that case, fourteen administration officials were indicted, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, and though some of these were vacated on appeal. But the accountability disaster was that President George H.W. Bush, in his last few weeks in office in 1992, pardoned the entire crew—some already convicted, like former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, others before they had even gone to trial or been sentenced.
Bush’s move has been rightly heralded as a landmark in the failure to hold elites accountable for behavior that would get regular folk a nice long stretch in the joint. What had begun with the possibly reasonable principle that former heads of state should not be imprisoned—and, more important, that political judgment should not be readily criminalized—had now percolated to other upper elites. (At least something trickled down during the Reagan-Bush years!)
Of course, no account of the growing lack of elite accountability can omit the sordid case of President Bill Clinton, whose lying under oath did result in his impeachment and eventually in a $90,000 fine for contempt of court. But Clinton’s contribution to this history lies in his refusal to resign when the evidence of his affair with his intern became public knowledge. While the impeachment process itself was itself a political travesty pushed through a lame-duck Congress, in a decent political culture, Clinton would have resigned as soon as his shameful personal conduct became known. But no.
Nor is the lack of accountability just about outright criminality. It also concerns the lack of accountability for enormous foreign policy failures. For the debacle in Kosovo in 1999, exactly no one was fired. Nor did anyone lose a job over the failure to prevent 9/11, or for the intelligence-cum-political failure concerning non-existent WMD stocks that justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq (an event whose ongoing repercussions include hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees). Indeed, President George W. Bush declared his re-election in 2004 as the “accountability moment” regarding the Iraq disaster: no foul, no harm!
On the home front, the story is much the same time. Consider the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005: yes, FEMA director Michael “Heckuva job, Brownie!” Brown did eventually lose his job, but Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was allowed to continue on. Nor was anyone senior fired over the botched rollout of the Obamacare website in 2013; rather, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was allowed to resign on her own terms a year after the process unfolded. In sum, despite an unrelenting record of policy failures in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas, the idea of holding political leaders accountable seems to have almost entirely faded away.
Abetting this tolerance of elite malfeasance has been the Supreme Court’s incremental evisceration of the traditional concept of corruption. As V.O. Key observed in 1961, “The masses do not corrupt themselves; corruption comes from activists and elites. If a democracy tends toward indecision, decay, and disaster, it is their responsibility, not that of the masses.”3 Behavior that the American legal system once deemed clearly illegal has now been redefined as politics as usual. If we can’t keep William Jefferson in jail—he of the cash in the freezer—or convict sleazy Virginia Governors and New Jersey Senators of what was until recently regarded as obvious corruption, then what can political accountability possibly mean anymore?
And it’s not just governmental elites who have been progressively insulated from accountability for their institutional failures, but economic elites as well. When the financial system melted down in 2008, for example, a few individual companies at the center of trading system that failed paid the ultimate price (notably Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns), but for the most part, while millions of ordinary Americans lost their jobs and houses in the catastrophic recession and deflation that followed, the major banks and financial services firms received bailouts even as their top leaders and CEOs remained in place. Oh, yes, and neither president of New York Federal Reserve Timothy Geithner nor Chairman Ben Bernanke took responsibility either, despite ample evidence that the Fed badly missed the signals leading up to the crisis and arguably mishandled it as it unfolded. For his efforts, Geithner was promoted to Secretary of the Treasury before stepping down in 2013 and becoming president of private equity giant Warburg Pincus. In the long run, the failure to hold Wall Street bankers accountable after the 2008 financial crisis may well be deemed Obama’s greatest failure.
In sum, what has happened across the board is that elites have succeeded in insulating themselves from personal consequences when they fail. In the case of political elites, this is typically by avoiding getting fired when things screw up on their watch. In the case of corporate executives, it works by having secured such enormous pay packages for themselves (often including huge golden parachute clauses) that even if they lose their jobs, they face none of the life consequences that ordinary people do when they lose theirs. As Adam Garfinkle wrote in these pages last month, “When elites are perceived as being self-serving, corrupt, arrogant, detached, patronizing and condescending, it matters because it smashes accumulated bridging social capital between classes.” Can we imagine any disgraced former Fortune 500 CEO choosing to make amends by washing toilets in a charity dedicated to poor?
In the end, any complex society only performs as well as its elites; put another way, meritocracy only works if coupled to elite accountability. While the concept of meritocracy usually refers to the selection process for putting people into positions of power, authority, and responsibility, for the concept to have any serious meaning there must be an ongoing responsibility among those who hold the positions. As Chris Hayes has observed, “We cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful.”4 That means, among other things, that the privileged must lose their jobs and privileges when the institutions they manage fail to perform.
The failure of accountability is both the proximate and the ultimate cause for the loss of fait in political institutions in the United States (and also in Europe, though that is a topic for another column5). It is impossible to understand the rise of Donald Trump, with his signature pledge to “drain the swamp,” apart from this long-term trend toward elite non-accountability and concomitant illegitimacy. The man who made his name as a “reality TV” star with the signature line of “You’re Fired!” seemed to many Americans to promise a reckoning for elites who for too long only ever seemed to fail upwards. Even the recently reported news that the Trump White House had the highest turnover of any first-year presidency since Jimmy Carter, which was widely seen in elite media circles as a sign of chaos and mismanagement, can from this perspective equally well be seen as him holding members of his team accountable for their performance.
Of course, that would be a misreading. While it is true that Trump has fired more people than anyone, it’s not because he’s a meritocrat bent on holding people accountable for performance, but rather because he is an incompetent who has assembled a team with little or no merit, either ethical or technical. What else can one conclude from a President who appoints a Secretary of Education who did not know the difference between proficiency and growth; who nominates for Federal judgeships people who lack an elementary concept of Federal rules of civil and criminal procedure; whose initial choice for National Security Advisor was on the payroll of at least one foreign entity; and whose Secretary of Health and Human Services has never managed a bureaucracy before, but on the upside believes that the biblical Joseph built the pyramids with help from God to serve as a grain silo. Trump is not the cure to the failure of meritocratic accountability, but rather the living embodiment of anti-meritocracy given free rein by the electorate—or enough of it to matter.
Restoring faith in American democracy and its institutions must entail reversing the long historical trend away from elites being held responsible for failure. Specifically, this means they must, like John Profumo, accept that failure bears a personal price. And not just for their personal failures, but for the failures of institutional performance that take place on their watch. So, here’s the mild takeaway: If you run a large organization and it screws up, do the right thing: Own the failure, and resign.
If the elites do not begin to hold themselves accountable, we as a polity will need to consider more directly coercive methods. Rather than purges and show trials of the sorts pursued in authoritarian regimes, however, it makes much better sense to consider reviving various largely forgotten practices that republics have traditionally used to enable popular control of both economic and political elites. University of Chicago political scientist John P. McCormick, for example, has pointed to three elite-accountability institutions common in pre-18th-century popular governments: magistrate appointment procedures combining lottery and election; offices or assemblies excluding the wealthy and political incumbents from eligibility; and political trials enlisting the entire citizenry in prosecutions and appeals. If elites cannot be relied on to police themselves, and the evidence that they can is not good, then bringing new/old methods to the fore to impose such accountability may be the only option remaining.
1From the same year as Murray and Brooks, see Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy (Random House, 2012).
2A major argument for the failures of post-1960s elites and institutions, as compared to earlier periods, is that the problems that earlier generations solved were “tame,” that is, relatively straightforward, with relatively uncontroversial solutions (like providing universal access to clean drinking water, paved roads, or basic education) whereas the remaining problems tend to be “wicked,” that is, ones for which there is no widely-shared objective definition of the correct policy response or optimal solution. The classic statement of this position is Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4:2 (1973).
3Valdimir Orlando Key, Public Opinion and American Democracy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 558.
4Hayes, Twilight of the Elites, p. 103.
5It is noteworthy that one developed democratic nation has largely avoided the current vogue for populism: Japan. While this may be partly because Japan has insulated itself from some of the effects of globalization, notably immigration, it is not a coincidence that Japan retains a culture in which elites take personal responsibility when their institutions fail.