Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

In the anticorruption community, it is fairly common to puzzle over—and bemoan—the fact that voters in many democracies seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt. “Why,” we often ask, “do voters often elect or re-elect corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters claim to despise corruption?” One of the common answers that we give to this question (an answer supported by some empirical research) is that even though voters dislike corruption, they care more about other things, and are often willing to overlook serious allegations of impropriety if a candidate or party is attractive for other reasons. We often make this observation ruefully, sometimes accompanied with the explicit or implicit wish that voters would make anticorruption a higher priority when casting their votes.

We should be careful what we wish for. Continue reading

Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece: Continue reading

Guest Post: Berlusconi and Corruption, Stability and Change

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela, an independent researcher who worked on Kosovo and Moldova’s development, and has written on Kosovo and Italy’s political economy, contributes today’s guest post:

There has been some discussion on this blog, prompted by the discussion at last fall’s “Populist Plutocrats” conference, on how corrupt, wealthy politicians can successfully position themselves as populists. One of the leading examples of this seeming paradox is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. In a recent post, Matthew Stephenson built on conference remarks from Giovanni Orsina and Beppe Severgnini to suggest that Berlusconi succeeded in part through a “politics of absolution”—the idea that by suggesting to Italian voters that “Italians are fine as they are, with all their vices, and need not change,” Berlusconi secured the support of many ordinary Italians who may themselves have bent or broken the rules, and who as a result of Berlusconi implicitly forgiving them, were willing to support him and to overlook Berlusconi’s own (much larger) infractions.

But as Professor Stephenson points out, there’s still a puzzle here: Voters consistently claim that they dislike corruption, and sometimes they are willing to take to the streets in protest. Indeed, during the two years that preceded Berlusconi’s electoral victory of March 1994, Italy saw frequent and large anticorruption demonstrations. Moreover, the particularism, clientelism, tax evasion, and corruption that Berlusconi both implicitly forgave and further entrenched are likely detrimental to the interests of a vast share of Berlusconi’s own electorate. So why did this message, and this so-called “politics of absolution,” work in the Italian case?

The missing piece of the story, as I argue in my recent book, has to do with the disruptive effect of the Italian anticorruption investigations of the early 1990s, and the fact that despite the success of that campaign in rooting out corruption, it ultimately destabilized Italian politics without offering Italian citizens sufficient reason to believe that the system would change for the better. Berlusconi offered the reassurance of a return to the old ways of doing things—and since most voters expected that such a return was likely, it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Continue reading

Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption. Continue reading

The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy

In countries beset by endemic corruption, efforts to expose and root out corrupt networks, and to punish the participants, can and should be celebrated. There are, of course, always legitimate concerns about the role that political power struggles may play in anticorruption crackdowns (think China and Saudi Arabia), an issue we’ve discussed on this blog before (see here and here), and that I may turn to again at some point. But in today’s post, I want to put those issues to one side to focus on something different. Suppose that some combination of government investigation, citizen reports, and media scrutiny exposes a major corruption network. Suppose that even though people always suspected that corruption was all too common, the investigation reveals that the rot runs much deeper, and goes much higher, than most people had imagined. Suppose further that, as a result of these revelations, law enforcement agencies take aggressive action, putting many people in jail and causing many others to lose their government positions. Again putting aside for the moment concerns about political bias, this is all to the good. But, what happens “the morning after,” as it were?

The hope, of course, is that by “cleaning house,” the state will be able to turn over a new leaf; the “vicious cycle” of self-perpetuating corruption may be broken, and those corrupt officials disgraced and removed from power will be replaced by a new generation of cleaner (though of course not perfect) leaders. Unfortunately, while that’s one possible scenario, it’s not the only one. In his presentation at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, the Italian political scientist Giovanni Orsina used the Italian “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) investigation into widespread political corruption, and the subsequent rise of Silvio Berlusconi, to illustrate how, under the wrong set of circumstances, a well-intentioned and widely-celebrated corruption cleanup could contribute to the rise of a populist—and deeply corrupt—demagogue.

I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion on the validity of Professor Orsina’s analysis, and I gather that other analysts have a different view of the long-term impact of Clean Hands, but his arguments strike me as plausible and sufficiently important that they’re worth considering, not only as potential explanations for developments in Italian politics, but perhaps more importantly for their potential applicability (mutatis mutandis) to other cases. In particular, Professor Orsina identifies two related but distinct mechanisms through which an aggressive and seemingly-effective anticorruption crackdown can contribute to the rise of a populist demagogue like Berlusconi. Continue reading

Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

Lava Jato and Mani Pulite: Will Brazil’s Corruption Investigation End Up a Wash?

Pop quiz:

Which corruption investigation was preceded by a massive outcry against corruption, was advanced by federal prosecutors making liberal use of the plea bargain, implicated hundreds of politicians (including former and current heads of state), raised serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, and ultimately resulted in a dramatic political crisis that led to the replacement of a long-standing populist regime with a conservative government bent on reform?

If you guessed Brazil’s Lava Jato (English: Car Wash), you’d be correct.

But if you answered Italy’s Mani Pulite (English: Clean Hands), you’d also be right.

The similarities between the two anticorruption investigations and subsequent prosecutions are no coincidence. In 2004, Brazilian Judge Sérgio Moro, currently responsible for Lava Jato, penned an essay praising the Clean Hands operation, calling it “one of the most impressive judicial crusades against political and administrative corruption,” lamenting Brazil’s failure to engage in a crusade of similar import, and setting a roadmap for the country to do so, based largely on the perceived successful tactics of Italy’s Clean Hands.

Over the last three years, Brazil’s Car Wash operation has followed Moro’s roadmap. But, as Alberto Vannucci has pointed out, Clean Hands was far from an unqualified success—on the contrary, the headline-grabbing, establishment-shaking operation arguably left the country even more mired in corruption than before. Last year, GAB contributor Daniel Binette (channeling Vannucci) predicted that Brazil could face three major challenges in the wake of Car Wash: (1) a collapse of major political parties, (2) the remote possibility of a coup, as occurred in Thailand in 2014, and (3) a loss of public confidence in the anticorruption probe itself. Some of Binette’s predictions have proven prescient, while the accuracy of others remains to be seen.

Continue reading