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Political Corruption And The Media

Real political corruption – the most corrosive kind – involves the use of governmental power to advance private or purely political interests, which is why, come to think of it, Lord Acton said “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A watchful student of history, Lord Acton added, “Great men are almost always bad men.”

When great republics collapse, “great men” step into the breach. Caesar rose from the ashes of the Roman Republic, and a string of monarchs in Europe was followed by the revolutionary anarchs of France and the guillotine. They, in turn, were supplanted by Napoleon, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “great men.” The idea of the republic usually suffers some form of corruption before its ruin.     

The sentiment that power corrupts is of course not original with Lord Acton. More than a hundred years earlier, William Pitt the elder had said in a speech to the House of Lords “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it," and Acton himself may have improved a sentiment expressed in an essay, France and England: a Vision of the Future, by Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine: “It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”

In any case, is it not obvious that unchecked power is a corrosive, unmitigated evil? This is one of the reasons why monarchical power in Europe was balanced, before and after the enlightenment period, by the rise of parliamentary power. Here in the United States, the founders of the American Republic, recognizing the corrosive effect of a concentration of power, established a written constitution that dispersed among the three co-equal branches of government the centralized power of potential autocrats and dictators. They thought, some think naively, that the innate virtue of the people would also serve as a check upon the aggregation of power.

It is the unitary, one party state – whether that party is a single man or a group of men -- that tends to corruption; or, more precisely, it is the aggregation of state power among special interests inimical to the public good that paves the way both to political corruption and the rise of “great men.” The slave master both corrupts and is corrupted by his slavery. This kind of political slavery can only happen when the innate virtue of the people has been sufficiently compromised. The collapse of Roman civic virtue preceded the collapse of the Roman Republic.  The brief rebirth of the Florentine Republic under Girolamo Savonarola, did not survive the return to power of autodidacts such as the fabulously wealthy and powerful members of the Medici family, one of them a pope, another a ruler of Florence exiled by robust Florentine republicans. It is the real republican, the chronic disturber of the peace of those who subvert the public good, who always goes up in a bonfire after great men have seized political power.

THIS is political corruption -- this subversion of republican forms to undermine the republic. We like to think of the media as so many watchmen on the towers of the republic, guardians of the public virtues of the people, without which no republic can stand against the sappers of political corruption, the inexorable pull of the one party state. Republics such as ours cannot survive in the absence of a virtuous, politically disinterested and energetic media.

In 1748, more than a quarter century before the founding of the American Republic, Sam Adams, justly called in his own day “The father of the American Revolution” and without question the most influential journalist of his time, mapped the connection between public virtue and an authentic republic:

“[N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man. We must not conclude merely upon a man's haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country. It is not infrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty (Italics original) — to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves.”

THIS is the public duty of a free media – to warn and admonish the people that liberty depends on public virtue, glaringly absent in politicians who most loudly and clamorously claim they are virtuous and whose undisclosed aim is to “oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves.”


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