How Grand Corruption Threatens Liberal Democratic Institutions

As regular readers may have noticed, GAB has been inactive for the past week (that is, until Rick’s post yesterday). Apologies for the lack of content – as I’m sure you can imagine, the U.S. presidential election has been consuming my attention and that of most of our regular contributors. But now that the election outcome is clear (notwithstanding President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud and the craven complicity of his Republican Party enablers), it’s time to get back to blogging. I suspect that much (though not all) of our content over the next couple of weeks will be related to the outcome of the U.S. elections—both backward-looking evaluation of the impact of the Trump Presidency on corruption in the US and beyond, and forward-looking considerations about the anticorruption agenda under the incoming Biden Administration.

Today’s post isn’t about Trump per se, but it’s loosely inspired by both certain aspects of his presidency and his current refusal to acknowledge and accept the outcome of the election. I want to say a few words about the ways in which corruption, particularly grand corruption at the highest levels of the government, can threaten to undermine the institutions of liberal democracy (free and fair elections, formal and informal checks and balances, the rule of law, etc.). To be clear, I don’t have in mind principally the ways in which politicians might engage in corrupt conduct to help win elections (for example, vote-buying, acceptance of illegal campaign donations in exchange for favors, diverting public funds for partisan purposes, etc.), though these are of course serious and important problems. Nor do I have in mind the broader and more diffuse “institutional corruption” associated with the excessive influence of concentrated wealth, though this too is a grave concern. Rather, I want to consider how grand corruption in the highest levels of government may threaten to erode or subvert (explicitly or de facto) the basic institutional structures of liberal constitutional democracy.

Nothing of what I have to say on this topic is original; it’s all drawn from existing literature, and the arguments are likely familiar to many readers. Still, I thought it might be helpful to highlight three ways in which unchecked grand corruption may contribute to democratic backsliding:

  • First, unchecked grand corruption within a democratic system can lead to a loss of citizen confidence in liberal democracy, enhancing the appeal of populist, quasi-authoritarian, or unapologetically authoritarian alternatives, and making the citizenry more tolerant of the anti-liberal, anti-democratic initiatives of such regimes, so long as these initiatives can be framed as about rooting out corruption. Some have suggested that Donald Trump’s rise is an example of this, but I actually think Trump isn’t really a good fit, as the evidence indicates that, drain-the-swamp rhetoric notwithstanding, his supporters were motivated more by bigotry, anti-liberalism, and anti-elitism than any genuine concern with systemic corruption. But other examples—Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines—may fit this model better. In extreme cases, grand corruption in a democratic regime may a contributing cause, or at least a pretext or justification, for an anti-democratic coup, as occurred in Thailand in 2014.
  • Second, a regime with an anti-democratic/anti-liberal agenda can use corrupt means to subvert checks and balances, for example by co-opting or coercing the media and the institutions of justice, bringing the business community into line, and manipulating or even rigging elections. In other words, corruption might be the means by which opponents of liberal democracy, once in power, seek to undermine the constitutional order. Perhaps the best-documented example of this is the Fujimori regime in Peru—best documented because Fujimori’s chief henchman kept meticulous records, which eventually leaked. But the practice remains widespread. The Trump Administration dabbled a bit in this sort of misconduct, for example in Trump’s ham-fisted attempts to get Ukraine’s president to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, but seems to have been either too incompetent or too constrained to do this on a wide scale.
  • Third, a corrupt administration may be especially reluctant to cede power, both because the administration’s leaders and cronies will lose their illicit revenue streams, and because losing power may increase their exposure to potential investigation, prosecution, and punishment. This is significant because the peaceful transfer of power is the hallmark, indeed the sine qua non, of a liberal democratic regime. When an administration’s leaders are involved in grand corruption, though, their incentive to fight tooth and nail against leaving office is extremely strong, so much so that they may be willing to subvert democracy (though perhaps retaining its trappings) in order to cling to power, thereby both protecting their ill-gotten riches and staying out of prison. This mechanism has been particularly on my mind this week, for obvious reasons. There are many explanations for why President Trump may be refusing to concede defeat, including ego, emotional immaturity, fundraising for his deeply indebted 2020 campaign and his planned political action committee, and vindictive efforts to undermine the incoming Biden Administration. But it’s quite likely that he is striving so hard to deny the will of the voters in part because President Trump is likely to be in deep financial and legal trouble as soon as he leaves office. Trump’s attempt to cling to power is virtually certain to fail. But his behavior is an illustration of a more general phenomenon that exists in many other countries—both current democracies, and countries where there is a push for greater democratization. Corrupt incumbents have more to lose from leaving office than clean incumbents do, and the former are therefore typically much more resistant to accepting the constraints of a liberal democratic order.

Again, none of the above counts as an original insight. And I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, especially since the U.S. election results are an encouraging sign that the seemingly relentless wave of anti-liberal populism that has swept much of the world over the past several years is finally being turned back. But we need to be clear-eyed about the threats that grand corruption poses to the liberal democracy. Those threats remain serious in many parts of the world, even if Donald Trump is now more of a pathetic clown than a would-be autocrat.

5 thoughts on “How Grand Corruption Threatens Liberal Democratic Institutions

  1. Apologies for being U.S.-centric with this comment, but I do worry a bit about the relationship between restraints and incompetence alluded to in the second point as far as their role in undermining Trump’s attempts to stay in power and/or perpetrate other forms of grand corruption. While I like to think that Trump’s attempts primarily failed because of institutional restraints, if incompetence played a significant role then I worry that Trump may have served to highlight flaws in the institutional restraints that could be exploited in the future by a shrewder corruption-minded administration.

  2. Great points Prof. Stephenson! I am curious on your first point that “unchecked grand corruption within a democratic system can lead to a loss of citizen confidence in liberal democracy” could also go in the other direction. That is, at least within an existing liberal democracy, perhaps grand corruption that goes way unchecked to a significant degree, such as in the US, may see a backlash or the pendulum swing the other way where there is a demand for reforms (and also a greater ability to separate the rhetoric of anticorruption from the reality). To some extent we will have to see how it will play out in the U.S. with the Biden administration but the fact that he was elected may have partly to do with the fact that people were tired of violations of basic norms in the previous administration. So I would agree that grand corruption can be a real threat. But can it also be an impetus for constructive change (and perhaps even some hope) in certain cases?

    • Yes, that’s a great point. We do see that happen sometimes (though I’m not sure if I’d ever prescribe grand corruption as the best way to reinforce democratic norms). For what it’s worth, my reading of the research literature is that in general higher levels of corruption correlate with lower confidence in the government and lower faith in democracy as a good system, but that’s not necessarily inconsistent with the subtler point that you’re making about how episodes of grand corruption can — if the corrupt regimes are successfully displaced — catalyze a movement toward greater integrity and stronger institutional checks. It remains a bit of a mystery, though, why that happens sometimes but not always.

  3. Notwithstanding irrelevancy to USA, I wanted to add here a fourth point: The prevalence of grand corruption may lead to mute opposition. This is primarily due to (1) the fact that the opposition expects same reciprocation when they will be in power; or (2) as a part of reciprocity, their past misdeeds will not be investigated.

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