Many of the recent woes and challenges of democracies worldwide—such as fading policy consensus, populist discontent, and widening equality gaps—have been fueled, at least in part, by corruption and unethical practices (not all of which are currently illegal). The Panama Papers and similar leaks have dented the reputation of elected politicians, established firms, and respected countries. Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying firms, and multinationals, leaving voters disillusioned about political integrity and the intertwinement of elite networks across sectors in society. Less visible but equally harmful can be the ways in which narrow interests seek to influence public decision-making for their own profit. Inequalities in access to policymaking processes, often reflecting inequalities in wealth and status, often lead to decisions that benefit and further empower those narrow interests, which exacerbates inequalities and fosters the perception of politics as unfair or illegitimate. Against the backdrop of widening income gaps between the rich and poor, the abuse of power leading to a concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people is a worrisome prospect.
As a result, these legal and illegal forms of influence peddling corrode the meanings and mechanisms of democracy itself. As Professor Mark Warren has argued, corruption can be described as duplicitous exclusion: corruption undermines democracy by excluding people from decisions that affect them and in which they expect to have a voice. When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable, and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech. This tarnishes all public officials, whether or not they are corrupt. And when people are mistrustful of government, they are also cynical about their own capacities to act in favor of the public good. Elections, for too many citizens, become a way to reject traditional democratic values and practices.
There are no quick fixes or easy remedies to this dilemma, but there are two things that activists and reformers must emphasize: Continue reading