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Nicolais: Does political extremism breed ethical lapses?

When leaders from either end of the political spectrum ignore ethical norms, it filters down to their adherents

Over the past week I ran across a few bits of information that led me to pose the following question: Is there something about being on the fringe extremes of the political spectrum that correlates to ethical lapses?

First, Denver political activist Darrell Watson emailed me a copy of a complaint he filed against Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. 

Mario Nicolais

The complaint alleges that CdeBaca’s refusal to reimburse eight days of salary to the City and County of Denver — an action every other member of the City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock took in solidarity with city employees who were furloughed for eight days during the pandemic — and instead donate the funds to a charity of her choosing constituted an ethical violation.

Watson alleges that she both benefited from a tax deduction and garnering political support at the expense of the city’s general fund.

Given my past criticism of CdeBaca’s nepotism, this is just one of multiple email tips I’ve received about her questionable judgment. She has also faced prior complaints by police officers and campaign finance watchdogs.

Several days later I ran across the story about U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert citing “the ongoing public health emergency” for her inability to attend to her official duties representing her Colorado constituents in Washington, D.C., last Friday.

Except Boebert was not sick at home. She pulled a Ferris Bueller and jetted down to the CPAC convention in Florida to address her political constituency and one orange-hued blowhard in particular.

I can just picture former Nixon/Ford speechwriter Ben Stein on the floor of the U.S. House issuing a monotone, “Boebert? Boebert? Boebert?

CdeBaca and Boebert occupy polar opposites on the political spectrum. Yet both seem to revel in thumbing their noses at political norms.

Both regularly criticize the “establishment” in their respective parties, aka anyone who disagrees with their extremist perspective. Both seem willing to bend campaign finance laws to their personal benefit. And both seem to consider ethics in government fungible — at least when it comes to them personally.

Those common threads juxtaposed to their political views made me wonder if there is something inherent to those on the political fringes eschewing ethical bounds?

By their very nature, political ideologies on the edges of the political spectrum pit their adherents against large majorities. The further to the right or left, the larger the number of people in opposition — not just from the “other” side, but from within nominal party ranks. That creates an “us-against-the-world” mentality.

Eventually, that mindset can lead to a disdain for rules, norms and ethical boundaries.

That outcome became manifest on the right in the lawlessness of January 6th or the left within the violent rhetoric of antifa. Worse still, the actions of one extreme tend to provoke the other in a spiraling pattern of one-upmanship.

The more one extreme flaunts its ethical obligations, the more freedom its counterpart feels to take the next step.

There are certainly bad actors who come from the middle. Plenty of center-right and center-left public servants have engaged in fraud or misconduct. 

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But you do not see the behavior spread to a mass level. There are no armed militias of angry centrists storming the U.S. Capitol. There are no mobs of people in the middle rioting in the streets.

Maybe it has something to do with the passions involved at either end of the spectrum and the leaders who fan them for political gain. Certainly it seems both CdeBaca and Boebert are more interested in building their own brands than actually governing. Neither is particularly effective working on policy with colleagues, but both excel at finding the closest camera.

Colorado deserves elected officials who prioritize ethical service. If the extremes cannot deliver, hopefully voters will take notice and find someone new.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq



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