U.S. Voters Says that Corruption Is a Major Issue. Why Are Politicians Silent on It?

If public opinion polls are any guide, corruption is one of the most important issues to U.S. voters. A 2012 Gallup survey by Gallup found that a full 87% of Americans deemed reducing corruption as either extremely important or very important—placing this issue second only to the economy/job creation, and ahead of the budget deficit, terrorism, and Social Security. More recent polls buttress these findings: A 2015 survey found that 58% of respondents were afraid or very afraid of corruption by government officials, the highest of any fear surveyed. This meant that corruption was a greater fear than large-scale disasters like terrorist attacks or economic collapse, as well personal events like identity theft, running out of money, or credit card fraud. Three-quarters of those surveyed in 2015 also believed that corruption was widespread in the government, a marked increase from 2007. And a 2016 survey found that 16% ranked corruption the single most important issue, which might sound low, but was the third highest issue in the polls.

Yet despite these poll numbers, U.S. politicians and parties do not seem to have made anticorruption a major policy priority; certainly this issue gets far less attention than terrorism and the budget deficit. True, U.S. politicians will sometimes attack their rivals as “corrupt,” a rhetorical tactic we have seen in the current election (see here and here). But although politicians use the term “corrupt” to malign their opponents, they do not seem to treat corruption as a genuine issue in need of fixing, and do not put forward an anticorruption policy agenda. Hillary Clinton has an extensive list of policy proposals on her campaign website, yet corruption and anticorruption are not mentioned. Although her website goes in depth about money in politics, it stops short of using the term “corruption” to describe this problem. Donald Trump did recently release a five-point ethics plan that used the term “corruption” once, but it is incredibly vague and appears to have been made out of desperation in the closing days of the campaign. In any event, his “Issues” page still does not mention corruption, nor do those of third-party candidates Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Evan McMullen.

What explains this disconnect? Huge numbers of Americans tell opinion pollsters that they believe that the government is corrupt and that this is one of the biggest problems facing the country. Yet political parties and politicians barely discuss “corruption” (except as invective) or lay out plans for solving it. This is a puzzle. Politicians, after all, have strong incentives to talk about the issues that voters care most about. Even if we doubt how seriously we should take politicians’ platforms and campaign rhetoric, one would think that it would make sense for politicians at least to pay lip service to the idea of fighting public corruption, if voters care so much about it. So why do we not see more focus on corruption and anticorruption in the platforms of U.S. presidential candidates?

It is quite possible that when respondents on public opinion polls claim to be worried about “corruption,” they might not be using that term in the narrow sense of illegal activities like bribery, embezzlement, and unlawful conflict of interest. After all, corruption of that sort, while certainly present in the U.S., is not a systemic problem the way it is in other countries. For example, only 5% of Americans report paying a bribe, according to a recent Transparency International survey. I suspect that poll respondents who decry widespread corruption are concerned not with more traditional corruption (illegal acts defined by federal statutes), but rather with the outsized influence of lobbyists and the myriad ways special interests can exchange money for favorable treatment from politicians—what the advocacy group Represent.Us describes as “legalized corruption.” So it is perhaps not surprising that presidential candidates don’t focus too much on things like bribery. Many of these candidates do, of course, talk about money in politics and the baleful influence of “special interests” (see here and here). But if American voters use an expansive definition of “corruption,” why don’t American politicians cater to them by also using the rhetoric of corruption to discuss the problem of money in politics and special interest favoritism?

It may be that, in spite of what the polls suggest, candidates may view the issue as a political loser. John McCain argued that campaign finance was key to addressing corruption in his bid for the 2000 Republican Presidential primary, but failed. More recently, Larry Lessig ran for president with the singular purpose of reforming what he saw as a corrupt political system. He was not the only candidate to talk about campaign finance reform, but he was willing to talk about the issue as a form of institutional corruption. He had a detailed plan to attack the problem: his proposed Citizen Equality Act of 2017 would have included measures designed to end gerrymandering, promote universal civic participation, and create citizen-financed elections. Additionally, his campaign materials frequently used the term “corruption.” Yet his campaign struggled to even be included in polls. The one poll that did include him registered 1% support. Running on an anticorruption platform, it seems, was not enough for his campaign to catch fire.

The issue of institutional corruption may be too vague to be an effective campaign issue. In tough economic times, many people are faced with unemployment, and many more face the specter of layoffs. This makes the issues of job creation, and economic security more generally, salient on a personal level. How many can say the same about corruption? As noted above, very few people report having to pay bribes to government officials. The problem of dark money influencing the political system is, by design, inconspicuous. The process by which a special interest group could purchase influence and craft bad laws is highly attenuated. Voters recognize government corruption as important when presented with a list in polls, but the issue isn’t very “top of mind” when respondents volunteer issues of importance to them: When respondents are asked to volunteer issues in an open-ended poll, rather than selecting issues from a pre-set list, corruption can get as little as 0-1%. Political strategists may prefer to focus on issues where the connection to voters’ personal lives is direct and simple.

And it doesn’t help that the U.S. media does not seem to take corruption, even broadly defined, all that seriously. Throughout three 2016 presidential debates, not a single question about corruption was asked (see here, here, and here). Not only was the term “corruption” not used, but there was also no question relating to super PACs, lobbyists, campaign finance reform, or any other topic that relates to government accountability reforms. The L.A. Times and the New York Times both submitted lists of questions they would like to hear at the debate, and neither of them mentioned any of these reforms either. Even Gallup dropped corruption from its 2016 presidential priority survey, despite the fact that the topic came near the top in the previous cycle. If the media has decided not to press the topic, politicians will not feel pressure to have detailed plans on it.

Of course, these explanations likely blend together. For example, if Professor Lessig’s campaign had received more media coverage, his numbers may have improved, and the broader understanding of “corruption” may have entered the political discourse more widely. Perhaps this would have caused more people to recognize “legalized corruption” as real problem that affected them personally. Unfortunately, as the 2016 campaign season draws to a close, the issue of anticorruption looks like it will be brushed over by policymakers, both on Election Day, and in the days after.

6 thoughts on “U.S. Voters Says that Corruption Is a Major Issue. Why Are Politicians Silent on It?

  1. Very timely insights on how most Americans define corruption Nino! I think you’ve summed it up nicely.

    I would add that Trump does not even believe that corporations who bribe foreign officials amounts to corruption, even though the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act declared it so in 1977. Indeed, he called the FCPA a “horrible” law (CNBC 2012 interview).

    As far as I know, no one has even quizzed Trump or Clinton on their support for this important US law, which is now the law of the land in 180 countries and counting!

    Is anybody listening?

  2. It seems to me as though from the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has been arguing that the political system as a whole is corrupt. He talks about the outsize influence he enjoyed by giving donations to candidates and bragged about how politicians ‘owed him’ favors for those donations, like when the Clintons went to (one of?) his weddings. Add that he loves using the pejorative “corrupt Hillary” and I would argue that Trump has made corruption, both systemic and specific, a centerpiece of his campaign. Is it possible that his willingness to speak to this particular issue is one reason for his nomination? Or is it just the standard message of the Washington outsider?

    • Thanks, Mike. No doubt Donald Trump has run a campaign attacking the general concept of corruption. What I find odd is that he, and most others, have not connected this to concrete policies to deal with it. To the contrary, as you note, he brags about how he used his wealth to influence politicians. He seems like a uniquely bad candidate to champion anticorruption causes.

  3. I have been thinking a lot about the number from the Gallop poll you cite — that a whopping 87% of Americans rank fighting corruption in federal government as a very important voting issue, especially given the context of this presidential election cycle. You note that the corruption that these people thinking about might have to do “with the outsized influence of lobbyists and the myriad ways special interests can exchange money for favorable treatment from politicians—what the advocacy group Represent.” I think this certainly gets at the issue, but I think there may be something about the American psyche and the “American dream” that also informs this. This country is one that has been propelled by hope and promise, the notion that, if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded with upward social and economic mobility. For large swathes of the population, though, this dream is not a reality. People are looking for something and/or someone to blame, and it might be easiest to say that there is something deeply wrong with the system. This is not to say that all Americans are selfish and we cry “corruption!” when we do not get what we want, but I do think that there is something to the American dream narrative that may play into this: people may believe that they have been lied to by their government or cheated out of what they were promised and deserved.

  4. Hi Nino,
    Revisiting this post — maybe now will be a time for the Democratic party to take these polls and these concerns serious about career politicians? If the “crooked Hillary” rhetoric did motivate so many voters to go to the polls for DT, perhaps there is something to be gained in the future by better addressing this issue to potential constituents.

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