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The Accountability Gap

Two cataclysmic events of my youth continue to shape the nation: 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. The first led us to question our security. The second led us to question the American Dream. Both made us fear more and trust less. Fear is natural, and Americans are not immune to its reflex. Trust, however, is something we can control. Both 9/11 and the financial crisis eroded trust in American institutions. This distrust stems from a lack of accountability. Until the U.S. rectifies this gap, our nation will continue to fracture. The answer is to take greater responsibility for ourselves — through greater education on the issues and the removal of money from our political system.

9/11 was a shock to the American psyche. Everyone from my home state of New Jersey knew somebody who knew somebody who died that day. Perhaps trauma is why we give our leaders a pass. However, our leaders failed us that day. The 9/11 Commission Report detailed innumerable instances where our leadership tragically mishandled its mission. Yet, nobody resigned, and nobody was fired. Instead, they were given carte blanche for what followed.

The mortgage was the bedrock of the American economic miracle. But the good times ended. Wall Street banksters re-packaged and gambled away the life savings of millions of Americans. They were not punished for their misdeeds. Instead, billions of taxpayer dollars in bailout funds flooded the banks to guard them against their own mistakes. Main Street got looted, and the banksters kept their golden parachutes and corporate bonuses. To this day not a single CEO has been criminally charged for the deliberate malfeasance inflicted upon our country. Accountability is disturbingly absent from our institutions. Is it any wonder why so many Americans no longer have faith in them? Not when there are clearly two different sets of rules.

However, we can still act. First, Americans must become better informed. The tribal tendencies that dominate our society benefit only inept leadership. Institutional trust has plummeted for good reason, but the average citizen cannot escape blame. This begins and ends at the ballot box; we cannot continue to send leaders to Washington who are incompetent. A certain level of intellectual rigor and integrity is appropriate in our elected representatives. This cannot be sacrificed at the altar of pseudo-anti-elitism.

Secondly, the exorbitant amount of money that suffuses our electoral system must end. The excuse for Wall Street skirting criminal prosecution from 2008 was that the criminality was too hard to prove. This is utterly fanciful. The financial power Wall Street holds over Washington shields it from liability. Massive U.S. corporations break rules and hurt taxpayers because they only risk insignificant fines. Until Americans get serious about money in politics, the crisis of accountability will only worsen.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were people. It opened the door for unlimited cash to flood elections. The decision has been toxic for democracy. When corporations outspend entire constituencies, how can average citizens consider their voice relevant? If our leaders are for sale, then we cannot expect meaningful change. Ineffectiveness, complacency, and absence of accountability will become the new normal.

Remembering 9/11 and 2008, the trends in American discourse make sense. All nations make mistakes, but where America has failed is that nobody has answered for them. When no standard is held, mediocrity or worse becomes the norm. 2020 was a dismal example of our institutions gone awry. A pandemic became highly polarized, with rioting in the streets, and contempt for the other. Yet we are directing our anger in the wrong direction. We need to stop looking at each other, we need to look in the mirror, and we need to look at our leadership. Truman stated, “the buck stops here.” Now the buck stops anywhere but the top. If we become a better-informed population and banish runaway spending from our elections, we will restore accountability. We will restore the nation we learned about when we were young.