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.