George Graham

It’s Easy to Get Cynical About American Politics – and Human Nature

Back in the days when people thought about things and tried to figure out right from wrong, fact from fallacy and what makes human beings tick, a guy named Diogenes walked through the streets of Athens in broad daylight waving a lantern (see painting below). He said he was looking for an “honest man.” I doubt that he found one, and I am sure he would have an even harder time in America today. Especially in politics.diogenes

Take the case of yesterday’s New Jersey arrests. An FBI corruption probe swept up at least 44 people, including three mayors, a deputy mayor, two assemblymen and five rabbis.

Others arrested included building and fire inspectors, city planning officials and utilities officials.

Hoboken’s newly-elected mayor, Peter Cammarano, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell and Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez were among those arrested, as was Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. Assemblymen Daniel Van Pelt and L. Harvey Smith were also taken into custody, as was Smith’s aide, Richard Greene. Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria resigned amid the corruption probe, although he was not arrested.

It was one of the largest corruption arrests in the history of a state known for its dirty politics. (More than 130 New Jersey officials have pleaded guilty or been convicted of corruption since 2001.)

It’s a complicated case, but the short version is that the politicians are accused of taking bribes, and one of the rabbis is accused of complicity in a plot to buy and sell human kidneys (for organ transplants). Also, some rabbis are accused of laundering millions of dollars, including proceeds from the sale of counterfeit goods and bankruptcy fraud

News of the arrests brought to mind a comment (repeated in a recent blog) by a young air conditioner repairman that “street gangs” run the country. It certainly seems as if American politics is riddled with corruption. And that’s a reasonable possibility when officials spend millions to get elected to jobs that don’t pay a whole lot. Most people are just not that motivated by a desire to serve society. Sadly, most people are also not instinctively altruistic. The stalled health care reform effort is a case in point.

edwardsIf they were honest, everyone in America would agree with Elizabeth Edwards’ comment that the country’s health care system is “immoral.” The 57-year-old wife of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards (photo at right) – who has incurable breast cancer – makes a compelling case when she says the system “fails everyone except the extremely wealthy.”

So what’s holding up reform? Self interest – or perceived self-interest. And I am not just talking about the health care providers, drug manufacturers and insurance companies – or the politicians in their pockets. I’m talking about you and me. I’m an old guy and I have Medicare – Medicare Advantage even. People like me are doing all right. By now many of us have figured out how to avoid the “doughnut hole” and keep our co-payments within reach. Do we want President Obama tinkering with our health insurance? Maybe not.

And there are the millions of Americans who have health insurance through their jobs. They are probably wondering how they’re going to be affected… probably thinking they might be better off with “the evils they know of rather than those they know not of.”  And, of course, there are the rich folks who dread the prospect of a tax increase.

I realize that the current system is unsustainable. I realize that the people with employer provided insurance are at risk of losing their coverage if they get laid off. And I realize that nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance, with all the pain and misery that implies. But I think I know something about human nature by now. And I know most people are reluctant to risk their self interest to help others in need.

As long as the Republicans and compromised Democrats in Congress can play on that ignoble fear, health care reform will be a long time coming in America.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for