Do Americans Care About Corruption?

We usually imagine that democratic accountability serves an important anticorruption function: since voters presumably do not approve of corruption, a benefit of democracy is the ability to give untrustworthy pols the boot. Yet in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Hilary Krieger provocatively claims that American voters don’t really care if a politician engages in corrupt acts, so long as “a political leader has otherwise furthered the public good.” In addition to this descriptive claim, she also makes the normative argument that Americans voters are right not to reflexively vote out politicians tainted by corruption.

Although both her descriptive and normative claims have some truth to them–elections are multi-faceted, and corruption is not the end-all-be-all issue–both the descriptive and normative arguments have serious flaws.

Let’s start with the descriptive claim that U.S. voters don’t care that much about corruption. In support of that claim, Krieger cites an empirical study by Scott Basinger for the proposition that the majority of U.S. Representatives who suffered a scandal while in office nevertheless won re-election. That’s true, but it’s also misleading, because of the overwhelming incumbency advantage in U.S. House races. Basinger’s paper in fact finds that “59 percent of scandal-tainted incumbents returned to the House in the subsequent Congress, compared to 87 percent of incumbents [without scandal.]” That’s a big difference, indicating that American voters do take note when they find evidence of wrongdoing.

Krieger’s article highlights politicians who have rebounded from corruption controversies–John McCain is a notable example–and laments the demise of those who were otherwise qualified to lead, such as Tom Daschle.  Here, the op-ed shifts from describing American voters’ views to making a normative case that voters shouldn’t care so much about violation of ethics-type rules: “it’s hard to think that the country has been better off for having disqualified Daschle from service.”

Krieger’s criticisms of current ethical rules as too complicated and uncertain are persuasive, but her proposal to make the rules laxer (or to have voters ignore corrupt conduct) is less so.  Echoing Rick’s earlier post about the value of bright-line rules in the corruption arena, the answer is clearer laws.  And while Krieger is right that anticorruption goals should not necessarily trump all other political aims, that’s a bit of a straw man.  Incorporating more conventional political agendas with anticorruption ideals is complex, as Raj’s recent post demonstrates.  Engaging with this complexity is necessary, but it’s important to first have an accurate view of the current empirical facts: American voters do care about corruption.

As a footnote, Krieger’s article quotes Jonathan Rauch (whose views on corruption I have previously critiqued) and others who predict that the incumbent DC mayor Vincent Gray–although embroiled in controversy due to a political donor pleading guilty to some pretty serious campaign finance fraud (and now himself accused of knowing about it all)–would nevertheless win re-election, because Americans don’t care about corruption. But in fact Vincent Gray just suffered what the New York Times termed an “upset” in the primaries, losing to a candidate who emphasized the need for a “fresh start” given the corruption charges surrounding Mr. Gray.  This development in the DC mayoral race supports this post’s positive claim: although a corruption scandal is not necessarily the end of a political career (nor should it be in all cases), Americans do, in fact, care about corruption. As they should.

6 thoughts on “Do Americans Care About Corruption?

  1. Good point about the DC mayoral primary — I think that’s important evidence. But I think there’s an element of Krieger’s argument that you didn’t really mention much in your post and that I’d love to get your thoughts on. Krieger points out that responses are different to different kinds of corruption: corruption to expand one’s power or stay in office is considered “politics as usual” and receives no response from the public, whereas corruption “to fill your pockets” usually receives more condemnation.

    Do you think your analysis changes at all based on what kind of corruption is at stake?

    • I think that Krieger’s claim is probably descriptively accurate, but (and I think this is consistent w/ my critique of Rauch’s argument in an earlier post) I think that Krieger’s claim should be re-phrased as: voters don’t perceive that behavior as corruption. And I’d agree (excepting campaign finance stuff, at issue in this case) that not all of the sharp-elbowed-politics should count as corruption.

      • I don’t think that “voters don’t perceive that behaviour as corruption” per se, but rather their expectation of politicians have been lowered through experience. If a voters’s choice is between Politician A, who has engaged in some shady borderline corrupt practices, and Politician B, who has engaged in some shady borderline corrupt practices, then of course the voter has no choice but to tolerate some baseline level of corruption. I agree that I don’t think this is a reflection that voters do not care about corruption, but rather an unfortunate reality of election politics in America (and many other countries) today.

  2. First, I completely agree with Eden that how we think about this really does depend on what definition of corruption we are working with.

    I also found the Krieger article fairly unpersuasive. For every John McCain, who successfully came back from a corruption scandal, there are many other politicians and public figures whose careers were seriously damaged by corruption allegations. And, as you mention, the Basinger study isn’t really set up to accurately measure career damage that comes up short of resulting in election losses.

    All that said, I do think there may be something to the descriptive claim that Americans care less about corruption in their politicians than we might think. As Krieger notes, voters tend to be attracted to (1) comeback stories, and (2) politicians who can get them things they want, be they support for particular ideological causes or monetary benefits. And maybe that is rational — if I were a completely self-interested voter electing a congressional representative, it would probably make sense to vote for the person most likely to bring benefits back to my district, regardless of his/her ethical record. Where I would part ways with Krieger is where she says that is good. Even if there is some economic benefit to electing the most competent politicians, regardless of their corruption records, doing so has negative externalities. Namely, it encourages the development of a system where politicians allocate goods based on their personal interests rather than the interests of the country writ large, and that is almost certainly economically inefficient. So maybe one way to think of this is as a collective action problem: the country would be best off if voters showed zero (or very low) tolerance for corruption, but that won’t happen because voters know that other voters will tolerate corrupt politicians who bring goods back to their districts. And if you buy that idea, then government intervention to address the collective action problem — i.e., strict ethics laws — is probably a very good thing.

    • I think the collective action framing is very nice because it shows why, normatively, even the politics-as-usual type of “corruption” is bad for the system as a whole. It also explains why I think Eden’s comment is accurate, that (as I agree) voters don’t punish elected officials as much for that type of “corruption,” although calling some of the rewarding-friends-and-punishing-enemies political behavior “corruption” is perhaps diluting the word too much.

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