Obama Administration Scandals and the Danger of Cynicism

Some conservatives, and our libertarian friends in particular, have been rather enjoying hearing about recent Obama Administration scandals. I would not begrudge anyone a certain amount of perverse pleasure in the discomforts of an administration that has been seeking to undermine our culture, way of life, and economic freedom since day one. But I honestly do not think these scandals are good news for our nation, let alone that they should lead us to believe that we will see any political, economic, or cultural improvements in their aftermath. Here I am thinking in particular of Greg Gutfeld’s enjoyable post. Gutfeld argues that “The IRS scandal, if perceived correctly, spells the end of big government.” How so?  Because, according to Gutfeld, it exposes the IRS as an ideologically biased, arrogant bully. By extension, apparently, big government has been shown to depend on thuggish minions and to be serving its own ends, rather than those of the people. For Gutfeld, the true victory in the IRS scandal is that big government is exposed as the untrustworthy, selfish beast that it is.

Would that it were so. It would seem logical that people would cease to look for favors from someone (or something) that keeps constant tabs on them, abuses its power for its own reasons—and, of course, wastes huge amounts of money on needless, even harmful projects. But nothing in our experience, or that of any other nation, should lead us to believe that this will actually happen. The mainstream press’ response to the most recent scandal, regarding “data mining” of our phone records, is more common and to be expected, namely, “so what?” A few civil libertarians are upset at the Obama Administration’s secret collection of data on Americans, but most have assumed all along that governments snoop on their people, and the press is all-too-willing to give a snooper of its own ideological predilections a pass on “information gathering.”

What these scandals are producing, what these kinds of scandals have been producing for many decades, is cynicism. And cynicism does not breed righteous indignation, demands for justice, or even a prudent aversion to petitioning the government for favors. Rather, cynicism breeds self-interested, unprincipled gamesmanship.

Corruption in the Russian Soviet regime was not simply rampant; it was what made the system work (to the extent it worked at all). Government officials had all the power, so anyone who wanted anything done, or not done, bribed the officials for the “favor,” or for the favor of looking the other way. Such, of course, is the logical conclusion of big government—it gains all power and becomes the guardian of all things, thereby gaining the ability to sell its acts and its refraining from acting. One must cajole or bribe to get anything done, or simply to be let alone.

Can we stop the leviathan state before it reaches this point of absolute power, when mass rejection and, potentially, revolution provide the only hope for relief? One hopes so. But cynicism is no tool in the fight.

It is easy to be misled by stories of northern European socialism to believe that trust in government is a bad thing. The Swede who happily pays the bulk of his salary in taxes, confident that the government will spend it better than he could does exist, in sadly large numbers. But one must remember that that Swede (or Dane, or Canadian, or member of a number of other proudly socialist polities) is acting at least as much out of pride as out of trust. Swedes and Canadians love their government because they think “caring” about poor people, the environment, and whatever cause is popular at the time, through government programs—rather than through that strange, unpredictable thing called charity—makes them better than other peoples. The lack of corruption in these countries is quite laudable, actually. It is the over-identification of oneself and one’s virtue with the government that is odd, dangerous, and sad. It also can be quite creepy. I remember hearing one Scandinavian remark that most of his countrymen want the government to see to it that all of his neighbors do everything the same way that he does. An exaggeration, no doubt, but creepy nonetheless.

The northern road to socialism—bureaucratic pride—is not the only road. In most of the world, whether former Soviet Republics, sub-Saharan regimes, significant parts of East Asia, or, indeed, parts of Europe, the calculus is one of self-interest. People cheat on their taxes, seeking to pay as little as possible into a system in which they have no faith. But, because the state is there, and handing out money through its various programs, people think only a fool would fail to seek a piece of the action. The state under such circumstances becomes a part of a corrupt political culture. It doesn’t stand above politics, merely administering programs decided upon by the people’s representatives, it becomes instead an enforcement arm of political power, which need not be concentrated among the representatives. Every bureau chief becomes a broker of power and goods. This, not renewed independence and limited government, is the future toward which the Obama scandals are leading us.

What once made many northern European regimes different, both in terms of lower rates of corruption and, for a time, in lower rates of government control, was not some racial proclivity toward honesty. Integrity is not genetic and it exists in a variety of forms in essentially all cultures. Moreover, honest governments exist in all kinds of cultural milieus—Chile has among the world’s least corrupt public sectors, as does Singapore, with Botswana gaining a high score as well, according to Transparency International.

What allowed America in particular to be free also allowed it to be a relatively uncorrupt nation—namely, virtue. Still ranked among the less corrupt nations of the world, the United States is losing its capacity for virtue, and the result is both scandal and further growth of the state. Why? Because our virtue was both personal and political. Decades ago George Carey and Willmoore Kendall coined the phrase “constitutional morality” to denote recognition of the duty of public officials to abide by the strictures of the Constitution. Only when those who hold seats of power within a government recognize the moral requirement that they act only when, how, and to the extent provided for in the Constitution can limited government and the rule of law be maintained.

For decades now our governors have made light of their constitutional responsibilities, preferring to “do good” rather than do their constitutional duty. Judges have come to prefer “broad equitable powers” to the law, because, if read in a convenient fashion, such powers allow them to do what they happen to believe is just, even if the law rather clearly is against them. Legislators likewise have come to see their job as that of “solving problems” by passing broad legislation decreeing that whatever they happen to believe, or see the polls as indicating their voters happen to believe, is a problem shall be addressed by the bureaucracy; they skip the difficult work of writing actual, detailed laws and so the possibility of being blamed for bad decisions, instead giving the real, law-making power to unelected bureaucrats. And Presidents? Defined by the Constitution as chief executives, tasked with administering laws written by others, they have long since taken over lawmaking powers and increasingly seek to act without even the check of public scrutiny.

Seeing themselves as heroes, these public figures corrupt our government by undermining the rules of lawmaking, and the constitution itself. Their consistent actions undermining the rule of law breed cynicism and make it easier for those who work for them (whether in the EPA, the IRS, or the NSA) to put expediency and ideology above their duty to the law.

Corruption at the IRS is in no way good news. Nor is secret data mining, or official lies about what happened in Benghazi, or any of the other scandals that have taken place under this or previous administrations. And this is true whether the misconduct has been reported or unreported, addressed or, worst of all, reported then ignored. The only good that could come out of this cluster of scandals would be actual Congressional action, breaking through the walls of silence and obfuscation from the Administration, and the cloud of smug dismissiveness from the mainstream press to find and punish those responsible at the highest levels. Then we might just see a renewal of faith in our ability to control our governors and perhaps even control the extent to which our government seeks to control us.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 19, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The Scandinavian attitude is easily explained. In Europe, in the wake of the French Revolution, government action came to be seen by the citizens, as the consummated result of their own organized wishes. Of course, Europeans can be very readily persuaded that self-serving deputies are betraying the people’s mandate, in the service of special interests; in fact, the political class is held in great contempt. Nevertheless, no one believes that curbing the powers of government is desirable, or even imaginable: the government is the appointee and agent of the people; to curb the government’s powers is to curb their own.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    #1 The real problem is not Obama; it is the electorate. In a normal democratic society where people are truly self-governing – even in republican style government as ours – there would be outrage in the body politic. There is none of it. That is the tragedy. The people neither understand nor hold in any esteem the democracy that used to be theirs – a government by the people, for the people and of the people. All have been drugged with iphons and facebook and twitter. Twit away, twits.

    #2 We need to re-examine our assumptions about this man who holds the position as president of the US. We have all been laboring under the false assumption that Obama (as we would expect of all presidents) supports our system of government, cares for our country and what it stands for, honors our past history and values our Constitution. He does none of these. When we operate on the assumption that he does, we continue to be baffled and confused about why things are happening as they are. It’s like assuming that Satan really wnans the best for us and then are perplexed when we sin.

    • Obama_Dogeater

      “#1 The real problem is not Obama; it is the electorate. In a normal
      democratic society where people are truly self-governing – even in
      republican style government as ours – there would be outrage in the body
      politic. There is none of it. That is the tragedy.”
      We can thank the complicit Mainstream News Media for this. They are just as corrupt as the Obama Administration. I spent four years in college journalism classes hearing the phrase “watchdog of the media” over and over, and when I see how they are basically lapdogs for Obama’s agenda, it sickens me.

    • msmischief

      Oh, yes. I said after the last election that we could survive Obama. What we can’t survive is an electorate willing to re-elect him.

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  • AcceptingReality

    I hope the scandals do lead to renewed independence and limited government, but my hopes aren’t high. I seriously think at least half, maybe 60% of the electorate think of these scandals as the administration sticking it to the wealthy and the religious right. A scary number harbor a sense of pride that this government is leveling the playing field for them.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Not really surprising. Père Henri-Dominique Lacordaire OP, who refounded the Dominican order in France after the Revolution, used to say, “Between the weak and the strong, between the rich and the poor, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.”

  • TheodoreSeeber

    “Can we stop the leviathan state before it reaches this point of absolute power, when mass rejection and, potentially, revolution provide the only hope for relief?”

    We are 40 years too late for that. But of course, due to the bread and circuses, the mass rejection will never happen.

    • Adam__Baum

      Not 40, years too late, but 100 years too late. The enactment of the Sixteenth Amendment, created a system where the individual without recourse, not another sovereign government is the payor. Worse, the complexity of the system exhausts the individual and unequal treatment encourages rivalry among citizens.
      It’s unfortunate, but a great many Catholics assisted in this assault on subsidiarity, and too many of them carried staffs and wore mitres.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        You know, I had read that before, but had never recognized the assault on subsidiarity it represents.

        I’ve long been of the opinion, that governments should only be able to tax other governments; down to the neighborhood, and the payment of the neighborhood’s taxes should be decided upon by the property owners in the neighborhood.

        • Adam__Baum

          Had we stuck to the original limits, we’d have been ok.
          If the federal government taxes states, they are in a much better posist to resist as governments. If one state becomes abusive in the nature or level of taxation, the individual can move with little consequence-not do with the direct taxes that as of one year ago today with the cowardice of “Catholic” SCOTUS CJ Roberts, apparently has no limit.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            A good distributist answer, that….

  • msmischief
  • C.s. Ekstrom

    We have been in an open culture war for at least two decades. Conservatives, Traditionalists, & Libertarians have essentially lost. It’s is fortunate that a good portion of the aforementioned believe in Divine Intervention because that is our only hope. Worrying that some are taking undue joy in the scandals Nerobama has been CAUGHT in (as Chicago alone would provide a treasure trove IF there was a functioning free press) is a pathetic concern of a truly deluded individual. What a joke!

  • Alecto

    Excellent analysis, but wrong conclusions. There is no incentive for the corrupt minions of DC to eliminate the corruption, in fact there is every incentive to perpetuate it. I often mention federalist principles and I’m confident Americans neither understand nor recognize the opportunity to re-establish or reinforce those federalist underpinnings presented by these scandals in the federal government.

    We have 50 state legislatures, the majority of which are controlled by some very savvy, very principled people. Surveying the reaction to the passage of Obamacare, which resulted in 26 states, and Virginia separately suing the federal government, my reaction to the scandals would be to press at the state level for firewalls against Leviathan and as quickly as they can be enacted. I would petition the states to prevent any further encroachment or payments (such as Oklahoma out-maneuvering of the feds concerning its status as collection agent for Obamacare).

    If faithful Christians really want to change the status quo, every weapon in the arsenal must be utilized. We have to broaden our vision of “action” to include state and local activities.

  • Tony

    I’ve mentioned before, I think here at Crisis, that Samuel Francis of Chronicles long ago said that the American government had become a protection racket. It makes as many people as possible both cash cows and benefit-receivers, so that everybody is somehow on the hook — everybody has to watch out lest the next “reform” leave them holding the bag, but without the perk. The solution to that is to flatten the tax and get rid of almost the whole tax code. That tax code, which no human being can master, is like the “unwritten law” that fellow hoodlums violated in the Monty Python Dinsdale Brothers sketch. Everybody is a criminal somehow — the complexity of the law makes sure of that — so everybody can be prosecuted, and everybody lives in circumspection.
    I think we’re done for. Look at the virtues and see if we have them. Fortitude? Give me a break. Not when every teeny little word of criticism or even denial constitutes a war. Feminists have long given women a horrible name — I am woman, see me whine and stamp my feet till I get what I want. Virtuous women never behaved that way; heck, half decent women of my grandmother’s generation would have been mortified by such unseemly behavior. Men are no braver, either. Temperance? When porn is our biggest export? When college is not for gaining wisdom but for mounting the steps towards toys and a “good” life? Hah. Wisdom? We are sixteen trillion dollars in debt, and our politicians and opinion-makers are no better educated than precocious ten year old brats. Justice? Our opinions about justice are so shallow, so driven by slogans, that anybody who read any law, or just read good novels, would think he had arrived at a nation of babies.
    We have no patience, no self-denial, no magnanimity, no piety, no tolerance (that’s right, we are ten times as touchy as the princess in the story of the pea under the mattress), no great learning, no thrift, no neighborliness, no devotion, no loyalty to place or person or institution (including marriage) … The best thing I can say about us is that we don’t brawl as much as we used to, and we treat our dogs better. Big deal.

    • Andrea Heffernan

      This must be the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. My heart sank when I read “I think we’re done for.” I have barely scratched the surface of the writings of intellectual giants like Alan Bloom, William Buckley, and C.S. Lewis, so I know I’m mostly ignorant. But I rank you among them and value your insight, which is why I am saddened by your analysis. What you write is true – so is there no hope? On another note, I credit you for inspiring me to learn again (via homeschooling our children in the classical method) and read only classics (I imagine that should keep me busy for a while.) You also inspire me to move away from L.A., though this is where I was born and raised and where my parents and sister continue to live. That would not help with the loyalty to place issue. But I dream of land, trees, rivers and stars in a black sky. Oh, and adventure, too. I am no helicoptering mom, and I daresay I must be a regressive cave-woman with a stick up her butt. I like to think, though, that I am a real progressive who has only done a u-turn because I found myself on the wrong road. Sigh.

  • John_O_Neill

    As a wag once put it; if the depravity of the current inhabitants of the New American World State continues unabated, then God will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.

  • hombre111

    Some of this article makes sense. But caring for the environment through CHARITY? Big oil and other multi-nationals whose pursuit of higher and higher profits will, out of charity, suddenly stop polluting earth, air, and water? Greed is a mighty engine that can only be held in check by laws. How compelling is charity, anyway? The conservatives, with their notion of “prudential judgment,” will find a hundred ways to accelerate global warming and the destruction of our planet. Some say we have already crossed the CO2 tipping point, with the oceans becoming more and more acid. A recent, amazing look on PBS about how the sun, earth, water, and air are a vast interconnected machine should give conservatives pause. But then, conservatives only listen to Rush, and don’t waste their time trying to understand big pictures.

    • thebigdog

      “The conservatives, with their notion of “prudential judgment,” will find
      a hundred ways to accelerate global warming and the destruction of our

      You are a pathetic, tired, old cartoon character.

      • hombre111

        No, just replay some of the stuff said during the last presidential campaign, and some of the stuff that is still being said.

        • thebigdog

          You seem to have a lot of time on your hands, why don’t you substantiate your limp-wristed claims yourself?

  • tom

    “The people” are dumb, the leaders are corrupt, church leaders are frozen in scandal, the GOP is weak, and the concept of the natural law has been repealed. A healthy dose of cynicism, washed down with a cold Sam Adams, may be in order.

  • tom

    “The people” are dumb, the political and civic leaders corrupt, the government officially socialist, the GOP weak, the church leaders frozen in scandal, and the natural law effectively repealed by judicial dictates. A dose of cynicism, washed down with a cold beer this July 4, may be the perfect remedy. Then, we’ve got to stop talking and get this once great nation back on course.

  • Tony

    One can make a case that every amendment between the end of the Civil War and the Volstead Act was an amendment against subsidiary entities, political or social, with their own regions of authority, independence, and interdependence. If people want to short-circuit some of the obscene spending on campaigns, we could do a couple of things — one of which would be to repeal the amendment allowing for direct election of senators. The fact that US senators depended upon the good will of state legislatures gave the states as governments a hammer over the national government. It also necessitated some cooperation across party lines, AND it probably would now make for more frequent turnover of senators.
    What people don’t understand is that voting is only a mechanism. It is not the sum of a citizen’s political life. It is hardly political life at all, but just a mechanism for ensuring that there will be some political life. But now — what is left for the citizen to do? We can’t even run our own schools — they are thicketed with national and state regulations, and the most powerful union in the country; they are too big, and have developed layers of bureaucratic insulation; the teachers arrive already corrupted by what they’ve “learned” in the ed mills; th textbooks range from boring and awful to lewd and awful — what can anybody do? The teachers no longer even believe that they are employees and delegates of the parents …

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  • cestusdei

    I am not cynical. I am realistic. The Republic is dead. We have begun a long slide into a 3rd world totalitarian regime. I won’t live to see it, but the grandchildren will.