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.