The case of George Santos: A test of integrity in public life

The ongoing saga of newly elected Republican Rep. George Santos has highlighted how much various social arenas rely on the value of personal integrity. Clothed in notions of honor and citizenship that contribute to the common good, personal integrity often underlies a healthy, well-functioning society.

Representative Santos appears to have fabricated most every part of the person he presented to voters, including his education and employment history, his property holdings, and especially his family history and ethnic background. Mr. Santos is now being investigated by Nassau County, the Eastern District of New York, and Brazil, which has reopened a 2008 case involving a stolen checkbook. Despite all that, he was sworn in Saturday morning with the rest of the 118th Congress.

Why We Wrote This

In addition to personal integrity, there is also what might be called systematic integrity. In the case of George Santos, there are questions about why the traditional layers of political vetting didn’t identify an apparent fabulist.

The scope and kind of fabrications, however, could challenge even the most partisan of nose-holding calculations.

“Will all that’s happened with the ongoing Santos saga prove to be a red flag for what needs to be done about preserving integrity in politics, governance, and democracy?” asks John Roche, a professor of journalism at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “Or will it be a white flag signaling our collective surrender in the fight to demand a functional truth?”

Whenever money, power, and politics are on the line, there are not just a few who will lie or steal to grab as much as they can.

That’s been true since the dawn of human civilization, which is in many ways defined by its particular social contracts and the layers of safeguards and systems of rewards and punishments that create incentives for citizens to abide by their terms.

The ongoing saga of newly elected Republican Rep. George Santos, however, has highlighted how much various social arenas rely on the value of personal integrity. Many of the ebbs and flows of human interactions are beyond the scope of the systems designed to encourage people to follow the rules. Clothed in notions of honor and social mores, including honesty and citizenship, that contribute to the common good, personal integrity often underlies a healthy, well-functioning society.

Why We Wrote This

In addition to personal integrity, there is also what might be called systematic integrity. In the case of George Santos, there are questions about why the traditional layers of political vetting didn’t identify an apparent fabulist.

Mr. Santos appears to have fabricated most every part of the person he presented to voters, including his entire education and employment history, his property holdings, and especially his family history and ethnic background. He falsely claimed to be the grandson of Holocaust survivors, falsely claimed his mother died in the 9/11 attacks, falsely claimed to have founded a charity for animals, and falsely claimed that four employees of an unnamed company he said he owned were killed during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Perhaps most legally perilous: It is unclear what the source is for the more than $700,000 he loaned his campaign last fall. Mr. Santos is now being investigated by Nassau County, the Eastern District of New York, and the country of Brazil, which has reopened a 2008 fraud case involving a stolen checkbook. Despite all that, he was sworn in Saturday morning with the rest of the 118th Congress.

“Part of the reason that George Santos slipped through is because the kinds of lies that he told were not just over-the-top lies; they were the kinds of lies that people don’t even think to check most of the time, because who tells lies like that?” says Justin Buchler, professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “When somebody just makes up the kinds of lies that a normal, sane person would not think to lie about, then few are going to check it.”

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