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American Failson

George Santos Got to Washington Thanks to a Systemic Failure of American Politics

The story of a pathological liar who conned his way to Congress has provided some high comedy. But you won’t like it when the laughter stops.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
New York Representative-elect George Santos

It is tempting to think of New York Representative-elect George Santos just as an amusing and timely sideshow in American politics. He has apparently lied about nearly every significant aspect of his life: his career, his education, his charitable endeavors, his campaign donations, and even his supposed Jewish heritage and descent from Holocaust survivors. And yet he now serves in Congress, where so far he has faced questions from countless reporters and ostracism by his fellow lawmakers.

It’s all made for some vital, end-of-the-year comic relief. Still, I can’t help but think that Santos’s rise to Congress is a symptom of a much deeper malaise in American politics. It should not be possible for someone to lie their way into a seat in the House of Representatives—not by fudging a few details or making promises that can’t be kept, but by fabricating one’s basic biography. And yet it happened. That is an ominous sign for the vitality of our representative democracy.

Much of what Santos has put forward as the story of his life is questionable at best at this moment. He claimed to work for both Goldman Sachs and Citigroup; both companies told reporters they had no evidence he was ever an employee. Santos claimed he graduated from Baruch College in New York City but later admitted that he had not graduated from any college or university. What exactly Santos did for the last 15 years or so of his adult life is murky. Perhaps the only verifiable job he held during that period was as a customer service representative for Dish Network in Queens.

Some of his fabrications go beyond padding one’s résumé. Santos identified himself as Jewish and said his grandparents had survived the Holocaust on the campaign trail. “I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos later claimed, saying that he was describing himself as “Jew-ish,” as if he were a character in a Larry David sitcom. He also said at one point that “9/11 claimed my mother’s life,” which appeared to suggest that she was among the 3,000 victims of the 2001 terrorist attack, but later tweeted that she had died in 2017 of cancer. His campaign now claims she worked in the south tower and survived 9/11, but at this point, who knows.

Santos is hardly the first politician to embellish his credentials, give false claims about his ancestry, or overstate his education. But the thoroughness of his lies is still staggering. More than 10,000 people have served in the House over the past two centuries, and none of them seem to have so thoroughly fabricated their lives to get elected to that chamber. Even Donald Trump, the most prolific liar in American political life, does not get these basic biographical details wrong.

In effect, Santos defrauded the voters of New York’s 3rd congressional district—not in a strictly legal sense, for reasons I’ll discuss later, but in a moral and practical sense. The 142,673 New Yorkers who voted for him cast a ballot for a person who does not actually exist. This is only a few steps removed from when people cast write-in votes for Mickey Mouse as a joke, except Mickey Mouse somehow received a majority of votes, and now a guy in a Mickey Mouse hat is setting up offices on Capitol Hill and getting ready to vote on legislation.

The most immediate set of failures here lies with New York’s political parties. It’s an open question as to who bears more responsibility: New York Republicans for somehow placing him on the ballot without realizing he was a charlatan, or New York Democrats for not realizing and pointing out that his biography was largely fictional. I lean slightly more toward the Democrats in this scenario. After all, why bother holding contested elections if a political party can’t do basic opposition research into a rival candidate?

Responsibility for this farce does not end there. By some pre-pandemic counts, more than one in 10 reporters live in and around New York. Not all of them cover politics, of course, and not all of those who cover politics cover local congressional races. But at least some of them do, and almost none of them apparently asked before the election, “Hey, what’s up with this George Santos guy?” They didn’t seek out college roommates or old work colleagues to learn more about his life. Now he wields one-five-hundred-thirty-fifths of the legislative power of the United States.

I say “almost none” because one local newspaper actually did sense that something didn’t add up. The North Shore Leader, which covers Santos’s district on Long Island, raised questions about his finances in September but its inquiries received little attention. It might be considered miraculous that a paper like The Leader even existed to do its tragically ignored sleuthing. Journalism experts have long warned that the collapse of local news outlets across the country over the last two decades would seriously undermine accountability for local and state officials. It would be hard to imagine a better validation of their fears than George Santos.

The final share of blame might even belong to the system itself. The Santos scandal is an indictment of the House’s current model of single member districts, which supposedly ensure that voters in specific geographic communities are represented by the best members of those communities at the national level. This is also supposed to provide a filtering effect of sorts: One’s own neighbors and colleagues should, in theory, be a decent check on ensuring that morally unworthy candidates don’t make it to positions of power.

That safety net failed here. The original congressional districts had roughly 30,000 residents, which probably ensured some level of local familiarity with candidates, but those social dynamics probably break down with the 760,000-resident districts that we currently have. Maybe that lack of personal familiarity can be offset somewhat by high-quality local journalism and well-contested electoral races, but the former no longer exists in many parts of the country and the latter seem to be on the decline as well. The only long-term solutions are to expand the House and shrink the electorate for each district, or to adopt another electoral method like proportional representation that would expose each individual candidate to wider scrutiny.

But there are more urgent questions for now. What should be done about Santos himself? He may already be in some unspecified level of legal peril. The New York Times reported last week that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and local prosecutors in Nassau County have opened investigations—largely centered on his financial dealings—into Santos’s conduct. Santos also faces a revived fraud case by prosecutors in Brazil that had been suspended by a court in 2008 when he couldn’t be located, a problem that New Yorkers helpfully solved by electing him to Congress.

None of that matters, however, when it comes to taking his seat in Congress. For obvious reasons, it is not illegal for elected officials to lie on the campaign trail. The Constitution also spells out the qualifications for members of the House, and the Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean that Congress cannot add additional barriers beyond what Article 1 demands. Any effort to prevent Santos from being seated would not survive a legal challenge. It is a somewhat moot point at the moment since the House isn’t truly in session thanks to the impasse over the speakership. (True to form, Santos briefly claimed on Tuesday night that he had taken an oath of office that was never given by a speaker of the House who doesn’t currently exist.)

In theory, the House could expel Santos for his lies and deceptions, and would be fully justified in doing so. But that would require a two-thirds vote from the chamber, which means a large number of House Republicans would have to vote to vacate a GOP-held seat in a majority-Biden district. My confidence in that caucus’s sense of civic duty is not quite so high after January 6. The optimal solution would be for Santos to do the honorable thing and resign from office. Then again, if Santos was interested in doing the honorable thing, he would not have been elected in the first place.