As most of us now know, we are currently experiencing one of the biggest document leaks ever. As reported by news agencies across the world on Saturday night, 11.5 million files regarding over 200,000 companies were released by Mossack Fonseca to a German newspaper called Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The newspaper then shared files with news outlets all over the world and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. According to The Guardian, one of the outlets with whom the information was originally shared, 12 national leaders and 143 politicians have been implicated by the content of the documents, not to mention non-political individuals outside of public scrutiny. And these numbers were concluded with what amounts to a cursory glance in the grand scheme of things. It will take time to sort through all of the now-available information. The Panama Papers will be an ongoing conversation for a long time to come, so I would highly recommend reading up on it. The Guardian has done a great job covering it thus far.
But I want to draw particular attention to Iceland. On Tuesday morning, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned with a statement from the Icelandic Progressive Party. The Panama Papers revealed a conflict of interest between Gunnlaugsson and a deal reached with a number of banks that funneled money toward a company Gunnlaugsson’s wife owned (which he had sold to her for $1 in 2009 in order to avoid difficult questions about transparency).
Though not indicted on any charges, the obviously shady dealings and political side-stepping broke the trust of the Icelandic people. On Tuesday morning, over 10,000 people gathered in Reykjavik outside the Icelandic Parliament to demand Gunnlaugsson’s resignation, which was not long in coming. Simultaneously, a petition calling for the same thing had collected over 30,000 signatures. Iceland has a population of just over 300,000 people. Within two days of the leaks going public, almost 4 percent of Iceland’s population had physically mobilized in protest and over 10 percent had engaged through the online petition.
Though those numbers seem small, think of the percentages in a different context. If 4 percent of the U.S. population were to gather in protest, the crowd would consist of 13 million people, and if 10 percent of the U.S. population signed a petition, it would register over 30 million signatures. Also, keep in mind that this mobilization occurred in two days. Though the comparison may be exaggerated, the sentiment remains.
We as a global community don’t yet know what the Panama Papers will mean for a plethora of different political situations around the world. While I applaud the mobilization in Iceland, I am skeptical of something similar occurring in the U.S. I am skeptical not because I think our politicians are absent from the ever-growing list. In fact, I won’t be surprised if we hear names more familiar than Gunnlaugsson very soon. I am skeptical because I don’t think we expect, let alone universally demand, integrity in our leaders.
For evidence, I look to the ongoing dramatic feud between Republican front-runners: Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump constantly incites violence against minorities at his rallies and openly embraces misogynist rhetoric and policies. Cruz, evidently the more upstanding alternative to Trump, recently ran an attack ad featuring a naked photo of Melania Trump with the text “Your Next First Lady.” When compared with these blatant disregards for public morality, I can’t imagine that tax evasion (what most of the Panama Papers suggest) will get anything more than a shrug. Trump will probably announce that it’s a good business practice, to resounding applause and emphatic head nods. (Similarly, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is barely better as the federal government continues to investigate this whole email fiasco.)
We have become complacent. Our expectations of our leaders fall into the extremely dangerous not-as-bad-as-the-other zone. When politicians are associated with criminality of this nature, though it’s extremely undemocratic and corrupt, we may be nominally interested for a little while, but we’re never shocked. I applaud the mass movement in Iceland, but I have very little hope for this new leak, the latest of many, to bring about change beyond a few resignations and some public apologies. Of course, I hope I’m proven wrong.