When a prominent platform like the New York Times Op-Ed page features a piece on corruption, I feel like I should say something about it. (Furthering the public dialogue and all that.) But it’s hard for me to come up with something productive to say about Thomas Edsall’s rambling editorial on “The Value of Corruption,” published last week. So far as I can make out, Edsall makes three main points:
- The Congressional ban on legislative earmarks, intended as a means of fighting one form of perceived “corruption,” has in fact undermined one of the key tools legislators can use to build compromise and overcome gridlock.
- The Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions in cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon have given wealthy interests more power to influence elections (which some characterize as “legalized corruption”).
- Sometimes corruption can be “good” — the “honest graft” praised and defended by George Washington Plunkitt — particularly when it helps certain excluded groups overcome barriers established by entrenched interests.
If your first reaction to this is that these points have little to do with one another — other than the fact that they all use the word “corruption” — then we’re on the same page. But instead of just trashing the Times Op-Ed page (much fun as that is), let me see if I can try to say something substantive. Not sure if I’ll succeed — here goes:
First, I think the confused and rambling nature of the op-ed is partly symptomatic of something that contributors to this blog have touched on before: the difficulties that arise when we start to use the word “corruption” to describe any feature of the political process we don’t like, or that seems a bit sketchy or sleazy or unfair (see, for example, here and here). In the particular context of earmarks, for example, Michael made this point very nicely in a previous post on a piece by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic, which had made precisely the same point about earmarks that Edsall made (including the highly misleading parallel to Plunkitt’s case for “honest graft”). I don’t think I can improve much on what Michael said in that post, so I’ll simply urge readers to follow the link above.
Second, I’m not sure if Edsall realizes it, but there seems to be a tension between his criticisms of the campaign finance decisions and his sympathy toward the “honest graft” associated with political machines. On the one hand, he says the former are bad because they enable certain groups (corporations, unions, wealthy individuals) to “spend more freely to influence the outcome of elections.” On the other hand, he insists that the latter, though perhaps morally ambiguous, can amount to “good corruption” because these corrupt deals enable certain groups to overcome “systems purposely designed by powerful entrenched interests to block emerging competitors.” So is using money to influence political decisions good or bad? I guess it depends on who is doing the influencing, and for what purpose.
Third, Edsall’s larger thematic point (to the extent I can distill one from the stream-of-consciousness rambling) is that Americans are too moralistic about politics, which of necessity cannot be as “rigid and rule-bound [as] many in the public conceive it to be[.]” OK, maybe — though other commentators have made exactly the opposite argument (another post of Michael’s discusses one such commentator). But I’m not sure what the evidence is for this claim, or what it has to do with corruption (unless corruption is defined tautologically as anything that the moralistic public thinks is inappropriate). On the evidence point, it’s true that many Americans seem not to like earmarks or the recent campaign finance rulings (Edsall disagrees on the first and agrees on the second). At the same time, though, the U.S. political system suffers from no shortage of wheeling and dealing. To the extent that there’s breakdown in the system now (and there clearly is), that may be (as Michael argued) more the result of polarization, particularly on the Republican side, than a surfeit of public moralism. And the fact that the public (and public prosecutors) have little tolerance for actual (illegal) corruption does not strike me as excessively moralistic, or insufficiently sensitive to the nuances of politics. These things are different. Indeed, I think the average member of the U.S. public may have a much clearer sense of this difference than Edsall exhibits in his editorial.