Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?
The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence.
First, whether intentionally or not, using the terminology of corruption—and especially the language of bribery—to describe the money-in-politics problem implies what I’ll call a “transactional” model of influence: Wealthy donor X says (or implies) to legislator Y, “If you vote the way I want on this bill, I’ll donate a lot of money to your campaign,” and as a result legislator Y changes her vote. I agree that this transactional model of money’s influence on policy occurs sometimes, as when the wealthy and politically active Koch brothers indicated that they would only support candidates who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and when a Republican Congressman, in a rare moment of candor, said of last year’s tax cut for the wealthy, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” More systematic research suggests that money—in the form of campaign donations—also buys access, as U.S. legislators are substantially more likely to meet with a lobbyist or interest group that has donated to the legislator’s campaign. So I wouldn’t purport to deny that the transactional model of influence exists, or that it’s a real problem.
At the same time, though, my sense, based on my admittedly cursory and inexpert reading of the scholarly literature on this topic, is that the transactional model of influence—the model implied by the “legalized bribery” rhetoric—is not the most important way in which wealthy interests influence (some might say distort) policymaking in the United States, especially on salient issues that get a lot of public and media attention. Although there’s strong evidence that money “buys” access, there’s actually not very much evidence that campaign contributions “buy” votes, at least not in the straightforward way implied by the transactional model. Rather, those with access to great wealth can translate that economic power into political power in many other ways, ones that don’t fit all that well with the “legalized bribery” paradigm. For example:
- Wealthy interest groups can support the campaigns of candidates who already agree with them on the issues that the interest groups care about. This may be one of the most important way in which money influences policy outcomes in the U.S. If you want your taxes cut, you could try to offer candidates who tentatively support higher taxes a big campaign donation to get them to change their votes, but it might be easier and more effective to support the campaigns of those candidates who already support lower taxes. The problem here isn’t bribery or anything like it; the problem is that unequal economic power can be translated into unequal political power.
- In addition, wealthy interest groups can use their economic and organizational advantages to monitor public policy issues and to inform (or misinform) and mobilize voters who care passionately about issues also of interest to the group. For example, there’s evidence that the outsized political clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States is due less to its campaign donations to particular candidates than it is to the fact that the NRA can mobilize large numbers of voters who oppose gun control. More generally, wealthy groups can try to influence public opinion on public policy issues, not only during election cycles but over the longer term, through networks of think tanks, pundits, friendly media outlets, etc. Some might call this a form of corruption, but I don’t want to get caught up in an argument over definitions. At the very least, this form of influence doesn’t seem to fit a “bribery” paradigm all that well.
- What about lobbying? In the public imagination, lobbyists influence politicians mainly by wining and dining them, treating them to golf outings and fancy vacations, and promising huge campaign donations in return for favorable treatment. And no doubt some of this happens. But a great deal of lobbying activity looks more like facially legitimate forms of public advocacy, often targeted less at presumptive opponents who might change their mind than at tentative supporters who need arguments, evidence, and support for the position that the lobbyists and their clients favor, as well as the policy expertise necessary to craft a law or regulation on a given topic. And it certainly helps if the lobbyists have a personal relationship with the public servants whom they’re lobbying. The problem is that even if the tools and techniques that lobbyists might use to influence public policy on behalf of their clients are not on their face sleazy or illegitimate—let alone “corrupt”—wealthy interest groups are able to hire more and better lobbyists, and this tilts the playing field in favor of the wealthy. An analogy to the judicial system might be helpful here: Wealthy individuals and entities have a significant advantage in litigation because they can hire more and better lawyers. Is this unfair? Almost certainly. Does it systematically distort the outcomes of the U.S. legal system in predictable ways, in favor of wealthy interests? Yes, probably. Would we say that the U.S. judicial system is characterized by “systematic corruption” or “legalized bribery”? Almost certainly not, because the means by which economic power is translated into influence over legal outcomes is not by paying off the decision-maker, but by employing more and abler advocates. Though the analogy is imperfect, it may also be that one of the main ways that wealthy interests translate their economic power into influence over public policy outcomes is by employing more and abler lobbyists.
My concern, then, is that the use of the rhetoric of “legalized corruption” and “bribery” to describe campaign finance and lobbying in the U.S. implies a transactional model of influence, and that this model, while not exactly wrong, is substantially incomplete. This is not a trivial problem, because seeing the problem mainly as one of bribery may lead us to focus narrowly on solutions intended to target implicit quid pro quos, obscuring all the other ways in which concentrated wealth may distort political outcomes.
The second reason I’m uncomfortable with the indiscriminate use of the language of “systemic, legalized corruption” to characterize the U.S. political system is that it may inadvertently feed into an unproductive cynicism, or worse, into rabid anti-governmentalism and/or an attraction to radical disruption. I am sure this is not what most of those who use the rhetoric of corruption to condemn the money-in-politics problem have in mind. The intention of many of the advocates who deploy this rhetoric is, I suspect, usually to shake people out of their apathy and to mobilize them to support reforms to campaign finance and lobbying systems. And maybe it will work. But I do worry that one potential consequence of repeatedly declaring that the all of U.S. politics is corrupt, that corporations and billionaires buy both policy and politicians, that both parties are in the pocket of the wealthy, that the system is “rigged,” etc., is to make people feel like their votes don’t really matter, or that which candidate or party wins the election won’t make much difference to public policy outcomes. (I worry especially that young people who buy into the everybody-is-corrupt view of politics will be more inclined to affect a kind of fashionable cynicism that passes in some circles for worldly sophistication, and that as a result they will be more likely to disengage from the political process, or to vote for no-hoper third party candidates.) And even more worrisome, a belief that the whole process is irretrievably broken may increase the appeal of radical candidates who don’t have much interest in or respect for ordinary approaches to governance. After all, what’s the point of working within a system that’s entirely, systemically corrupt?
Am I saying that overuse of corruption rhetoric by campaign finance reform advocates helps explain the rise of Donald Trump? No, I wouldn’t go that far. In Trump’s case, the evidence we have so far suggests that his appeal in the primaries was based mainly on racial resentment and status anxiety (see here, here, here), and in the general election partisan loyalty was the main factor in explaining voting decisions. But I do have a more general worry that overuse of broad, undifferentiated corruption rhetoric—especially of the “your vote doesn’t matter, system is rigged, both parties are the same” variety—is unhelpful in promoting a message of political engagement and policy reform, even if it can get people riled up. Nuanced messaging is hard, especially in mass campaigns—I get that, and maybe there’s no way to effectively advocate for systematic campaign finance or lobbying reforms without framing the issue as an anticorruption issue, rather than as an issue of political equality or something similar. But still, I worry about the unintended consequences of that sort of messaging.
Third, I do worry that the (over)use of the “legalized corruption” rhetoric to describe “ordinary” U.S. campaign finance and lobbying practices may unhelpfully obscure just how bad and corrosive actual (illegal) corruption can be both to the political process and to public policy outcomes. The Trump Administration, for example, seems on a whole host of dimensions related to corruption and conflict-of-interest to be much, much worse than its predecessors. And as problematic as the U.S. system is, it’s simply not the same as those systems where bribes, kickbacks, and various other forms of corruption and illegal campaign financing are the principal ways in which parties and candidates compete for and win elections. I don’t want to come off as an apologist for the U.S. system, so let me say again for the record, as clearly as I can, that I think the money-in-politics problem in the United States is huge, and must be addressed. But it’s not anywhere near as bad as, say, the massive corruption that has been exposed in the Car Wash investigation in Brazil, where the state-owned oil company was paying inflated prices to contractors in exchange for political donations to help parties win elections. Yet I’ve been at too many international conferences on corruption where, in the course of discussing these forms of massive political corruption, someone will say, “But isn’t this just the same as what happens in the United States, except that it’s legalized there and called ‘lobbying’? What about Citizens United?” Um, no. One can agree—and again, I do—that the U.S. system desperately needs reform to address the money-in-politics problem without embracing the position that what we see in the U.S is in any way comparable to the forms of political corruption we see in places like Brazil, Russia, Honduras, Bangladesh, etc. To return to my judicial analogy: In many countries, alas, judicial corruption, in the form of judges taking bribes, is widespread. This allows the wealthy to “buy” favorable rulings. In the United States (and elsewhere) the wealthy also have unfair advantages, not because they can bribe judges, but because they can pay for fancy lawyers and are willing to fight longer and spend more on any given case than less well-heeled litigants. Does this mean that the U.S. judicial system is “corrupt” in the same sense as those systems where litigants can alter a ruling by paying off the judge? No, it doesn’t, and to say otherwise borders on the absurd, because it misses crucial differences in the ways in which economic power can be translated into influence, and the relative social harms associated with those different mechanisms. As with influence over judicial rulings, so too with influence over public policy.
I realize that many of those who use the language of corruption to describe the U.S. money-in-politics problem might object to my suggestion that this language necessarily implies a “transactional model”; indeed some of them go out of their way to emphasize that they are defining “corruption” in a way that does not necessarily imply anything like an archetypical bribe transaction. I take the point, but it seems to me that the rhetoric of corruption gains much of its power from the fact that, for most people, that rhetoric implies a transactional model. I also recognize that most of those who use the rhetoric of corruption do not mean to suggest that the whole system is irretrievably broken, or that the sorts of “legal corruption” we find in the U.S. are comparable in scope or effect to the forms of illegal corruption that pervade so many other systems, especially in the so-called developing world. Still, though, I do worry about the overuse of corruption rhetoric when pushing for needed changes to how the U.S. system regulates money in politics, and I hope that we might collectively consider alternative ways of framing the issue.