Growing up I remember hearing the phrase “Have you no shame?” That question must have held some power back in the day. But if you asked that now, some shapers of our current political culture would respond with a resounding “No.” Hyper-partisanship has moved us into a post-shame world.
Shame is the internal, uncomfortable sense arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, whether that has been done by oneself or another. While shame is a negative emotion, it plays an important part in the development of civilizations. Without shame, there is no longer a need to adhere to cultural norms, follow laws or behave in a way that allows us to exist as social beings. The diminishing influence of shame is exactly what we have been witnessing. And until we can reduce polarization and bring back healthy shame, we will continue to see politicians like Republican Rep. George Santos not only rise to power but remain in office.
Santos may just be the quintessential example of what a post-shame world looks like. The new representative from New York’s list of lies is long. Here are just a few listed in no particular order of shamefulness:
Santos said he earned degrees from New York University and Baruch College. He claimed that while at Baruch College, he was a star volleyball player who required two knee replacements from playing. He later admitted that he didn’t graduate from any institution of higher learning. Santos’ campaign website claimed his mother was in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and that she died as a result of the attacks. According to NBC News reporting, Fatima Caruso Devolder was living in Brazil in 2001 and died of cancer in 2016. Santos described himself as a “proud American Jew” and falsely claimed his grandparents escaped the Holocaust and who had been to Israel numerous times. He later backtracked and said he was “Jew-ish.” Finally, he alleged that four of his employees were killed in the Pulse shooting. According to a New York Times investigation, none of the 49 victims of the mass shooting appear to have had any connection to Santos.
Perhaps Santos himself is not able to experience the personal sensation of shame as he has yet to express any sincere remorse for his lies. In the past, the institutions of political parties and party elites would have stepped in and put pressure on him to behave appropriately or step down. Unfortunately for the electorate, specifically New York’s 3rd Congressional District, the Republican Party has also moved past shame and will no longer apply pressure because retaining power is more important.
This sickness of audaciousness has infected the country widely. Multiple Republican elected officials have condemned Santos’ lies and requested his resignation, but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Santos “will continue to serve.” Santos has since been assigned to two House committees, though he reportedly is stepping aside while investigations are underway.
This shamelessness is a byproduct of the nation’s extreme polarization. We are willing to excuse immoral behavior and lies because the other side is worse. These negative views of the opposing party and contempt for the other continue to rise.
In 1994, a Pew Research poll found that a majority of Republicans had unfavorable impressions of the Democratic Party, but just 17 percent had very unfavorable opinions. Similarly, while most Democrats viewed the GOP unfavorably, just 16 percent had very unfavorable views. Since then, highly negative views have more than doubled: 43 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats now view the opposite party in strongly negative terms. More than half of all Republicans and nearly half of all Democrats now believe their political opponents to be “immoral.” A recent YouGov survey showed that 60 percent of Democrats regard the opposing party as “a serious threat to the United States.” For Republicans, that figure approaches 70 percent.
A 2020 study out of Brown University showed that Americans’ feelings toward members of the other political party have worsened over time faster than those of residents of European and other prominent democracies.
Each side fears the country would be destroyed if the other side achieves power. Gaining influence and securing elective seats has become more important than maintaining a healthy moral compass. Tribalism removes the need to think for ourselves and judge conduct. It asks that we only consider what the other party’s members are doing as justification for what happens on our team.
I’m afraid we are sliding uncontrollably down a very slippery ethical slope. The way back up is to reduce our polarization, call out our own and give candidates’ personal conduct a high priority when we enter the voting booth.
I long for the day when in the political arena we can ask that original question again, “Have you no shame?” and finally the answer given is: Yes, I do.
Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)