America is often criticized for being puritanical. I have personally had conversations with Europeans, and a few Canadians, where they bemoaned American politics, saying that it was not only too partisan, but that Americans cared too much about morality in politics. Indeed, American politics was to them offensively moral, or at least we wanted our politicians to be. In other countries, the people are more lax, and this, they argue, allows the technically most competent politicians to take positions of power, when in the United States a scandal might have brought them down. What these Europeans and Canadians fail to recognize, however, is that there are times when the moral outrage of the people is justified. When this is the case, we should all hope that politics are accustomed to responding to the people, shedding the morally odious persons. This is a great American strength; once a politician, whose moral crime merits his removal, is discovered, he is quickly done away with. In countries where politicians are not expected to be quite as moral, however, there exist no efficient informal mechanisms of removing these persons from office. To illustrate this point, let us examine the recent revelations concerning Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
The crack smoking Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford has effectively lost his ability to govern. Ignore the fact that after a video surfaced of him smoking crack cocaine, nearly all support and respect for the mayor disappeared. This alone would make it nearly impossible for him to govern. However, the mayor, who tried to explain his crack smoking by saying it probably just happened in one of his “drunken stupors,” has been striped of most of his powers by the city council.
The supposedly cocaine snorting Mayor of Toronto has lost all his legislative prerogatives. The supposedly prostitute cavorting Mayor of Toronto has had almost all of his executive powers transferred to the deputy mayor. The supposedly drunk driving Mayor of Toronto has been formally asked by the city council to leave office. The supposedly marijuana smoking Mayor of Toronto is still Mayor of Toronto, still occupies and degrades his office, and still is able to represent Toronto in a ceremonial capacity. What makes the situation more absurd is that not only is Rob Ford not resigning, but he plans on running for reelection, presumably believing he has a chance at winning.
How is Rob Ford still in office, and how is he able to think his tenure is at all appropriate? This goes beyond the usual hubris of politicians. Indeed, a hubristic politician can be forced to step down. However, there must be certain necessary mechanisms in place, both informal and formal ones. One must come from a place where politics are both aggressive and moral, so that outrage has fangs. In the United States, for example, it would be impossible for Ford to stay in power. His apparatus would collapse as all his important advisors and deputies would resign, doing so out of concern for their own careers. In a more moral republic, Ford would be too toxic, he would be totally abandoned.
There are, of course, notable exceptions in the United States of horrid politicians who are able to hold onto or regain power. The point I want to make is that if Torontonians were more accustomed to expressing moral outrage, that is, if their politics were a little more focused on the private morality of their politicians, things with Ford would have turned out differently.