Richard Davis: One-party rule naturally leads to ethics abuses

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

The Republican Party in Utah has held power for a long time, much too long. The Legislature has been controlled by Republicans since 1980 and the governor's office since 1984. In fact, not a single Republican running for statewide office has lost since 1996.

Rick Bowmer, AP

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A Utah attorney general is accused of having taken a bribe to lobby a U.S. senator. His predecessor was collecting campaign donations from companies that came under investigation. A Utah lieutenant governor is alleged to have used his position to influence government employees at the Division of Child and Family Services.

Is this a sudden failure of ethics? Actually, the problem isn't just a case of a few public officials in trouble. It is deeper. It is a manifestation of a culture of arrogance.

Lord Acton, a British politician, once commented that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The longer one stays in office, the more likely power corrupts. And when that power is so great that any opposition is essentially helpless to block it, the corruption is absolute. The late Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once remarked that "some sincerely wish for more power in order to do good, but only a few individuals are good enough to be powerful."

The Republican Party in Utah has held power for a long time, much too long. The Legislature has been controlled by Republicans since 1980 and the governor's office since 1984. In fact, not a single Republican running for statewide office has lost since 1996.

In most of the state, campaigns during the general election don't even occur. When I asked a Republican state senator last year how he was doing, he replied that he was busy with his campaign. Of course, it was a charade. There was no campaign. He put up no signs, distributed no literature, and did no door-to-door campaigning because he was, once again, unopposed. His experience is all too typical across this one-party state.

Any party that has been in power too long begins to adopt a sense of entitlement to power. The Democrats did so when they dominated the U.S. Senate for 26 years and the U.S. House for 40 years. The Nixon administration also felt that way and believed they could break the law without any consequence. Both became arrogant with too much power. Arrogance leads to a willingness to throw weight around to get whatever is desired. Arrogance breeds a chain of thinking that even when power is abused, there won't be any accountability.

In fact, some Republican leaders are so arrogant that they believe they can stay in power even despite scandals. For example, in response to the point that voters should have known about the investigation of John Swallow before the election, Gov. Gary Herbert agreed but said he wasn't sure it would have made any difference in the outcome. In other words, the voters would have easily accepted someone under federal investigation to be the state's attorney general merely because that candidate was the Republican.

This arrogance also is demonstrated in legislative decisions made in closed legislative party caucuses, ever stricter limits on the ability to put citizen-based initiatives on the ballot and closed primaries that exclude most voters. It is not the case that all Republican public officials are arrogant. But it is difficult to avoid the temptation to become arrogant, and it is an indication of the problem when even a highly-praised public official like Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is enmeshed in an abuse of power scandal.

Rotation in power is essential for the protection of the public's interests. Elected officials need to believe they can be voted out of office or else they have no fear of the public. Without that fear, public officials are free to forget the public and use power to serve their own interests and those of their friends. That is the product of the culture of arrogance.

A culture of arrogance is part and parcel with a one-party state. It was true of Democratic control of the South for 100 years, which bred continual abuses of power. It is now true of Utah. That culture of arrogance can only be ended when an all-powerful party no longer automatically wins elections and voters keep elected officials from becoming arrogant.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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