The public is a poor judge of character and it isn’t difficult for a sociopath to pass as a saint. Working in local politics, I can attest that it is fairly easy to make people think you’re a good person. First, being handsome helps a lot. The public is pretty stupid, like that. They trust good-looking people and being good-looking is license for those people to be very bad and they are. The next important item is to get in front of a camera and make timely talking points. That’s it. The public doesn’t care about your record or see if you’ve tried to keep promises or have been ethical. Especially in local politics because the public doesn’t see local politicians very much. Most people don’t track their town councilors or state legislators so the few appearances those people make in front of a camera are vital. Be handsome and say the right things because no one is holding you accountable.
Local politics is a shit-show of people who got involved to advertise for their day job since their elected office pays almost nothing. They lie and feign doing things to keep getting elected to an empty local celebrity position their primary use for is to direct people to their money-making business. There isn’t much oversight so if a real estate agent wants to run for zoning board, there isn’t much to stop that obvious conflict of interest. So, there is active corruption but the vast majority is passive. If you are an idealist who knows you have to start small and thinks local office and local politics is the easiest step, you’ll soon find that there aren’t enough people who are in local politics who want to make the world a better place to help you. The more work they do for the public, they less they make money. Taking on a noble cause won’t make them money. Working on almost any cause won’t make them money.
I really wanted any corruption to be more romantic and contrived. Alas, it was just people who were unwilling to do anything because doing things in politics made them no money. For a lawyer on a school board, their clients pay money, their constituents do not. The worst thing about that type of corruption is that it is impossible to expose. Their conflict of interest is they make more money from being locally famous and make less the more public service they do. There is no scandal and yet it rots the system because if policies can’t update the system for the changing times, the infrastucture slowly loses its ability to work. The bureaucracy and the courts are working with a zombie code that hasn’t changed significantly in decades and is incapable of being changed. Eventually, it is going to break. As a religious person, a part of me feels like the devil devised a form of corruption impossible to beat.
This is a threat to liberal democracy because the right-wing populist movements killing it are the product of a low standard if living caused by their local society, in large part. If local government doesn’t work then authoritarian populists will rise in power. This is not a cabal of elites or even corporate greed, it is a horrendously designed system. Politics needs to be the day job of politicians.