Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

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.

6 thoughts on “Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

  1. Thanks for this post. I share your hesitation with characterizing the US political system as one of “legalized corruption” and appreciate your thoughtful take-down of the phrase. Nonetheless, I had a few lingering questions when I read your timely post.

    First, you say that wealthy donors often support candidates who “already” agree them and thus don’t “purchase” their votes so much as they “find” their best candidate. I’d be curious what you’d make of the fact that many candidates can/do fashion their positions a prior to attract wealthy donors. In other words, maybe we live in a world of “quo pro quid?”

    Secondly, I’m not totally convinced by your analogy to the US legal system. While I get that corporate power can buy better lawyers not unlike how it buys better lobbyists, there does seem to be a fundamental difference in how campaign donations create access that doesn’t quite apply to the court. For example, no one would argue that the wealthy are more likely to have their day in court. Sure, they might succeed more on appeal but it’s not as if justiciability is tied to income. Conversely, it seems highly likely – as you acknowledge — that campaign dollars can create more meetings which can, in turn, create more bills (i.e. votes).

    • Both great points. Let me try to say a bit about each one.

      On your first point, yes, I agree that this is a problem. Often the donors don’t need to make any explicit offers or threats, because politicians will adjust their positions to curry favor with donors (or at least avoid antagonizing them). Whether we want to call this corruption or not, it does fit with what in the post i called a transactional model. I’m sure this happens, particularly on lower-profile issues or on issues where the donor base across the board would have strong and similar feelings. But on a fairly wide range of high-salience issues–from guns to global climate change to social security–I do think that money does more work in helping to get candidates with particular views elected than in shaping those views. That’s an empirical question, of course, and one I haven’t studied closely, so I could well be wrong about that. But my impression is that while your average candidate may adjust their views a bit to please potential donors, money has a bigger impact in how it determines which candidates prevail. But, again, good point.

      On your second point, just to be clear, I’m not saying that the US legal system is like the political system in all respects, and your point about access is one in which there’s a clear difference. I meant the analogy only in the more limited sense that a system can be skewed in favor of the rich even without something like the transactional model (let alone outright bribery of the decision-maker). And although, as I note in the post, lobbyists’ donations do seem to purchase access, there’s also a lot of things that lobbyists do (and that cost a lot of money) that don’t fit the transactional paradigm all that well. So I don’t want to resist your pushback on the analogy, because I don’t want to exaggerate that analogy. But I do think it’s helpful in capturing the more limited point I was trying to make, namely that money can buy more effective advocates, and that more effective advocacy can influence outcomes, and that this can be a problem–but a problem that isn’t well-captured by the usual rhetoric of corruption or bribery.

  2. A core issue it seems to me and great you initiate a debate here! You have clearly thought about this long and hard already so may I suggest that you to kick off the challenge with one (or more if you can come up with them!) alternative frame(s)?

    My personal intuitions regarding what an alternative would need to bring to the table:

    Yes, you are right, the “bribery” forms of political (and judicial) corruption are different from the US system’s other mechanisms translating economic power into influence. However, I would be careful with using language that suggests that the bribery version is “worse” than the other mechanisms. I guess/hope most would agree that the US political and judicial systems are not as bad as those in places with “car wash”-like scandals, but I would also argue that this difference is less due to bribery being a “worse” mechanism in itself, as to it existing usually/always(?) on top of, along side other inherently unfair and “indefensible” (the most intuitive adjective for me would be “corrupting” but I’m doing my utmost best to avoid it here 🙂 mechanisms around campaign financing, lobbying, revolving doors, etc. etc. (the specifics of which may differ considerably across countries, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). Adding bribery to the mix makes it “worse”, but if one would compare a fair/healthy system plagued by a bribery scandal with a Brazil and a US type situation, I would strongly argue for the US being way worse off than the country with basically fair “institutions” in place but (only) hit by a scandal. This implies that the unfair mechanisms other than bribery should carry a lot, maybe even most of the blame.

    “Corruption” may indeed evoke a transactionalist model, it also carries strong moral weight. Given the above understanding any reframing of the “other” mechanisms in other terms than corruption needs to evoke a similarly heavy moral disapproval. That’s where my ability to contribute to the debate ends.

    Having said that, an additional intuition I would want to share is that effectively reframing the differences between these mechanisms might imply having to reframe/think the understanding of other concepts. I know that going down this road runs the risk of drowning chances of a fruitful debate in the dreaded sea of complexity (a major reason that your blog is such a great resource is that most/many contributors have a legal background which comes with a focus on the practical effectiveness of specific actions withing currently existing, or at least realistically achievable, and specific jurisdictions). But I also have no clue how to discuss what “unfair advantages” within a political system means without taking a look at its core assumptions. My reading is all over the place, so let me share a quote from Simone Weil (from this post about her: https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/10/31/simone-weil-abolition-of-all-political-parties/):

    “Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means towards goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain. For instance, if, instead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Republic that decided, through a most rigorous democratic and legal process, to put the Jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture them to death, such measures would not have been one atom more legitimate than the present Nazi policies (and such a possibility is by no means far-fetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. In no circumstances can crime and mendacity ever be legitimate.”

    When worrying about the use of the label “legal corruption” you focus on the “corruption” part. My understanding is that for many using this label the “legal” part is at the core of their intended message. Because the “legally corrupt” more often than not, are (also) involved in changing the rules. Not only using loopholes but actively creating them (using their lobbying power etc.). The importance of Weil’s perspective on “priorities” is that it is one way of understanding the worries of those favouring the label “legal corruption”. And they are difficult to properly asses with discussing what matters to “democracy”. It undermines the the system by procedural changes which are counter to the end it is meant to serve. If anything delegitimizes it, it is this.

    This is not to say that I disagree with your fears about the “corruption” label itself contributing to this delegitimization and its consequences. But it is to argue that whatever alternative frame to “corruption” one chooses for focusing on the mechanisms other than bribery making for undue influence of wealth, it needs to hightlight that these mechanisms are at least as bad as bribery/corruption.

    My personal opinion, based on living many years in “corrupt” countries whose governing elite was, still is, hugely skilled in using institutional design, including that of the law, to pernicious ends, is that they are actually systemically worse, but that is beside the point here.

    To get back to the invitation I started with: what would be your proposal(s) for frames that are at least as, if not more expressive than “corruption” of the fundamental morally reprehensible (undercutting fundamental ends of democracy like fairness for all, etc.) effects of the non-bribery mechanisms we are talking about? Recognizing the risks of “corruption”, its major advantage is that it intends to put bribery into a more proper place amongst other evils, questions its tendency to be put on a pedestal as the most important indicator of bad systems. What alternative would work as well, hopefully even better to highlight the dangers of the other mechnisms, with less risk of contributing to delegitimizing the system even more. The recent debate on Brazil was an interesting case study of how difficult these issues very quickly become.

    Very much hoping for good reframing suggestions! Thanks again for initiating a debate on this fundamental issue, in such worrying times.

  3. Professor Stephenson, thank you for the provocative post on this. I do agree that the word “corruption” has been used to talk about (undue maybe) influence of money in politics and this causes a massive confusion that tends to blur the relevant differences amongst different problems affecting “public integrity”more broadly saying. With regards to the rejection of the “transaction model” I wonder whether the fact that some politicians are so dependent on a specific platform linked to a specific industry who supports them financially do not amount to the same effect of a “this for that” transaction. In terms of negative effects we intend to avoid, should the broader commitment to be loyal to a certain agenda suffice to distinguish these situations from bribing politicians for specific acts? I think my concern is that, whether the behavior has a different structure from a typical bribery scheme, campaign finance may create on funders a high level of certainty that whenever the public agent is confronted to a certain sort of topics, the decision will be favorable to them anyways. In this sense and roughly saying, it could be seeing as paying in advance for a full set of future possible acts. I must acknowledge though that this can be a more specific situation and while this may be true for some politicians, this would not suffice to describe the whole system as entirely or inherently corrupt.

  4. What an interesting perspective! In general, I agree that labeling an entire country as a country with prevalent “legalized corruption” might be extremely counterproductive for the reasons you laid out here. However, I personally do not shy away from suggesting that specific instances can be exactly that, maybe hoping that it will have less of a negative effect in the end. It is just that in some specific cases, I get too emotional about some events and it just feels like there are no better words to define that other than the grim “legalized corruption”. However, I am conflicted as to whether using this phrase makes sense at all…

    I actually often wonder about the accuracy of the phrase even in those specific cases for reasons very similar to what you describe in this post. I remember having traced the voting patterns of the Lithuanian politicians in the Parliament for my own interest. Quite often, it is easy to notice that some of them tend to vote suspiciously frequently in favor of specific interest groups (hypothetically, let’s say, for example, fast lending companies) and to suspiciously frequently propose amendments to laws in favor of those same interest groups. Lithuania being a small country, it is often easy to trace how those specific politicians are related to those interest groups – either we know that the representatives of those interest groups are classmates / friends / former colleagues with those politicians. Or there are rumors that those interest groups indirectly later fund politicians’ events that help them increase their political visibility… Or there are rumors that the lobbyists lobbying on behalf of those interest groups find other ways to “thank” the politicians… I was always tempted to point at such cases and diagnose “legalized corruption”, BUT. There is always, at least technically, a chance that those politicians were genuinely sure that they cast votes that are in favor of the public good the way they perceive it and that they express their loyalty to the electorate by implementing those policies (for example, maybe the politicians actually feel that more easy access to fast landing will boost economy)! And it is just a coincidence that those politicians are also receiving some indirect benefits from those interest groups at the same time. (This is not to say that I think that Lithuania has no problems, just to illustrate the potential counter-arguments).

    What I am getting at is that legalized corruption is a sneaky concept – it has a word “legalized” in it for a reason. Pinpointing it accurately is nearly impossible. Maybe the minute we start calling something “legalized corruption”, we discredit the entire concept of corruption – if we say it can be legalized at all, don’t we suggest that it makes no point in fighting it? Isn’t the concept itself counterproductive? I remember the former head of Transparency International Russia often joking that “something is either corruption or not, it cannot be just a bit corruption, just like someone cannot be just a bit pregnant”.

    Having said all of that, I have come to think that transparency is more important than deciding whether to label something as legalized corruption. More transparency in what interest groups meet with what politicians and when. More accountability in decision making (cost-benefit analysis, other arguments, etc). More transparency in political funding (making cross analysis of how politicians vote with who funds them, opensecrets.org style). Maybe there is no need to label *anything* legalized corruption – maybe it is enough to keep publishing facts for voters to make informed decisions….

  5. Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Professor Stephenson! Perhaps there is a danger to labeling the state of money in politics in the U.S. as legalized corruption precisely because it allows those who are sticklers for the corruption definition (i.e. the transactional model) to undermine the valid arguments brought up by those arguing for change. While your concerns around creating a culture of cynicism and apathy particularly among voters and young people are valid, I would propose another framing. I would agree that we stand in a unique time in recent history when American confidence in our political institutions is in decline. This might be linked to a greater understanding and prevalence in national discourse around terms like “systemic injustice.” I would argue that this newly popular framework may actually galvanize change. Rather than asking people to focus on individual problems in local contexts, examining problems from a systemic perspective could unite people in the fight and lead to more sustainable change. While a focus on individual acts of corruption, e.g. the selling of a Senate seat, may feel more achievable, it can keep advocates from seeing the larger picture and making systemic changes to address a large problem. All this to say, perhaps discourse like this could actually activate more young people and help them rally together to change the campaign finance system.

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