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Accountability Isn’t Real

Ted Cruz won't face consequences because there are no consequences for politicians anymore.

Photo: Lauren Liu

While Texas froze and Texans starved, Ted Cruz went to Cancun.

Cruz, like the incredible worm he is, used his kids as a shield to try to protect himself from the fallout. “With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends,” Cruz said in a statement. “Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.”

Cruz’s cravenness in this situation and his high profile resulted in a media circus Thursday that’s usually only reserved for presidents, especially as the narrative he was trying to push was repeatedly contradicted by the evidence. (For instance, someone in Heidi Cruz’s group chat who clearly wishes the Cruz family ill leaked text messages showing that she, not the Cruz children, was the driving force behind the decision to go to Cancun.)

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Texans and people who already hate Ted Cruz (which is a lot of Texans) were predictably furious, while right-wingers ranging from Dinesh D’Souza to Ben Shapiro to Erick Erickson did the thing where they pretended being a U.S. senator means you don’t just have zero jurisdiction over state issues, you barely know what a state government is supposed to do at all.

It would be great to think that this sordid episode will lead to Cruz’s downfall. But if past experience is any indication, “media circus” could be about as far as things will go. Real political consequences in this country are so rare that they might as well not exist. Cruz’s crime was not giving a shit about the people he represents, and in this country, that’s not actually a crime for some reason.

The only scenario in which this might have mattered is if it had happened in October 2018, right before Cruz beat Beto O’Rourke in the closest Senate race in Texas in a generation. Instead, it happened in February 2021, and now Cruz has nearly four years to repair his reputation with the hundred or so people who somehow did not realize he was an asshole before now.

If he wants to run for president again, Republicans are going to base their decision much more on Cruz backing Donald Trump’s election challenge last month or his capacity for owning the libs than whether he abandoned Texas during its nightmare winter storm three years prior. The Senate isn’t going to censure or expel him; they couldn’t even get the votes to do that when he helped put their lives in danger. He’s already being defended to the hilt on Fox News. Cruz might as well be entirely inoculated from political ramifications.

The other piece here is that what Cruz did was just a more blatant example of what every one of his colleagues are doing right now. After completely blowing the House Democrats’ impeachment case because they wanted to get home to their families or whatever, Senate Democrats recessed for a week, and then got extremely pissy when people pointed out that they went on vacation.

People need COVID relief now and they went home. It wasn’t a priority; Valentine’s Day was a priority.

Even when legitimate crimes are involved, accountability essentially doesn’t exist in America. Donald Trump presided over four years of hell and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and if a small number of people had voted the other way in a few states, he’d still be the president right now. Then he incited a riot and Congress couldn’t even get the votes to stop him from running for president again. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now facing a federal investigation into his coronavirus task force’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, after one of his top aides admitted that his administration concealed the true death toll of nursing home residents from state lawmakers. Cuomo then apparently threatened a state assemblyman, then called him a liar and said he didn’t threaten him.

Many New York legislators, even Democrats, loathe Cuomo for obvious reasons: he’s vindictive and power-hungry, and a public advertisement for the idea that Democrats want Republicans to win so they don’t have to do anything. But so far the driving force behind calls for his impeachment are Republicans, whose motives are far from pure. As for the Democrats, so far all most of them have publicly come out for is revoking the unilateral power Cuomo was granted during the pandemic. If Cuomo doesn’t face greater punishment, he could just skate without suffering any real damage. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

There’s a lot of talk on the left now about “holding” people, corporations, and institutions “accountable.” It comes from a good place; the point is to make people believe that they can use their collective power to force politicians to cede power or comply with demands. The problem is that in the U.S., power has become utterly non-responsive to those demands. There are no consequences because accountability and shame do not exist; beyond a very narrow set of circumstances (selling a Senate seat to the highest bidder while the FBI is listening, or killing someone with your own two hands, for instance) there is no uniform standard that we all agree constitutes unacceptable conduct. There’s just the crime and whether or not you have enough people on your side who are willing to overlook it.

It’s not just Trump, though he certainly didn’t help matters. The Bush administration lied its way into a war that killed and displaced millions, and not only did no one face jail time, but many of the people who helped do it are fixtures on cable news and considered elder statesemen. If I can put on my 2006 blogger hat for a second, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and many others should be rotting in prison right now. The fact that they’re not and people who committed crimes as children are is an indictment of our institutions.

When you think about people who resigned in disgrace or were forcibly removed from office, they’re almost all people who had secret romantic partners (Mark Sanford, Jim McGreevey, etc.) or engaged in corruption that wasn’t just blatant but comical. You will never be able to convince me that Rod Blagojevich was more obviously corrupt than Mike Madigan, who ran Illinois politics for 50 years; he was just dumber about it and had more powerful enemies.

The closest recent example we have to something resembling accountability is that former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was charged with misdemeanors for “willful neglect of duty” when his administration poisoned Flint’s water and then covered it up. We knew that a long time ago; regardless, those charges came two years after he left office, finishing two terms after facing zero action from the state legislature or courts to remove him.

Until that changes and powerful people begin to face consequences for their actions, we will continue to run into problems like Ted Cruz, and Andrew Cuomo, and Donald Trump, and so on. If history is any indication, people who should obviously be nowhere near power after disgracing themselves and their office will be allowed to continue their ghoulish march unabated for years, decades, or even centuries, until the whole thing inevitably collapses in on itself. The only question then will be whether or not there’s anything left worth saving.