The Link Between Corruption and the Global Surge of Populism

“Populism” has been defined in many different ways, but the context in which the term is most frequently used today aligns with the definition proposed by Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” This formulation certainly captures the political style of the leaders discussed at last month’s Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And it certainly captures the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

A couple of previous posts have provided an overview of the Populist Plutocrats conference agenda and information about the video recording (see here, here and here). In this post, I want to use the conference discussions as a jumping-off point for thinking more generally about how populism relates to systemic corruption—both as a consequence and as a cause.

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Populist Plutocrats Conference–Video Available

Last Saturday, on September 23, Harvard Law School organized (in collaboration with the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago) a conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” which I previously advertised on this blog (see here and here). The event was video-recorded for those who are interested but were not able to attend in person. At the moment, the available video is a full, unedited recording, which you can find here (on the Stigler Center’s YouTube channel). We’re hoping to get the video edited and uploaded in a more convenient format soon, but for those who are interested, I’ll provide in this post the time locations for different sessions of the event:

I hope and expect that we’ll have some more posts in the coming weeks that reflect and engage substantively with some of the discussions at the conference, and in particular how they relate to issues of corruption and related topics, but for now I hope some of you will check out some of the video recording.

 

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

How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront? Continue reading

Jacob Zuma Violated the Constitution. Now What?

It’s hard to imagine a court decision more dramatic than the South African Constitutional Court’s March 31 ruling on President Jacob Zuma’s misuse of public funds at his private home in Nkandla. In powerful language that sometimes verged on purple prose, the ConCourt announced that the Public Protector, the constitutionally-created institution charged with investigating improper government conduct, is the “embodiment of a biblical David, … who fights the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath[:]  impropriety and corruption by government officials.” In order for the Public Protector to effectively serve that function, the ConCourt decided, the remedial action she recommends must be binding. By failing to follow her prescribed remedial action, which included paying back a “reasonable percentage” of the misused funds, Zuma had failed in his “obligation[] to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution.”

However, the scene in the National Assembly, South Africa’s lower (and more important) house of Parliament, on May 4 was equally dramatic—though much less dignified. With President Zuma scheduled to make his first appearance before the National Assembly since the Nkandla judgment–and with the reopening of a different judgment by a lower court that could lead to the investigation into another corruption-related incident–the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party demanded that he not be allowed to speak since he was clearly “illegitimate.” EFF members and the Speaker of the National Assembly got into a “screaming match,” which eventually escalated into a fight. As Parliamentary protection service officers forcibly removed the EFF from the legislature, the EFF members continued to shout insults and declare that it was the President, not they, that should be forced to leave. The day also involved the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Zuma’s party, ruling that any quotations from the Nkandla judgment during the legislative session were out of order, and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the primary opposition party, mocking Zuma and calling him the “looter in chief.” Putting a punctuation mark on this fracas was a five-day ban on the EFF’s National Assembly representatives and a decision by the remaining opposition parties to boycott the National Assembly the following day.

The ConCourt’s ruling, though, is far more than just a prompt for an exciting 24 hours in the National Assembly.  Looking further down the road, what does the Nkandla judgment mean for South Africa?

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Why Hasn’t Jacob Zuma’s Latest Anti-Anticorruption Effort Succeeded Yet?

Any time South African President Jacob Zuma is involved in something, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that corruption will somehow be involved as well. That’s particularly true in relation to the tension between him and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. This tension has recently manifested itself through a fractious battle, often via proxies, over decades-old happenings in the South African Revenue Service (SARS), an institution of which Gordhan used to be the head.

The attack upon Gordhan is largely motivated by concerns that he has the power and willingness to cut off some of Zuma’s corrupt lines of patronage. So far, nothing new: Zuma has a history of going after anyone who he perceives as threatening the network of graft which he’s woven. What’s particularly noteworthy this time, though, is that he’s facing some difficulty getting Gordhan out of his way—and that difficulty might hint at some hope for anticorruption advocates.

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You Can’t Go Home Again: A Surprising Concession from South Africa’s President

“Nkandlagate” has been the gift that keeps on giving for South Africa’s satirists and social media quipsters. It started with the scandal itself: Jacob Zuma, the country’s president, spent at least 256 million rand (what was then more than US$30 million) in public funds to install a swimming pool, amphitheater, chicken run, and cattle corral at his private home, called Nkandla. When the expenditures were revealed, he claimed they were “security upgrades.” After all, the most natural way to ensure you have enough water on hand to put out a fire is to install a swimming pool, right? Political cartoonists and puppet-starring TV shows alike have weighed in on Zuma’s recalcitrance in the face of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report demanding that Zuma pay back some of the misused funds.

The jokes are understandable: after years of living with the consequences of an infamous arms deal–the “original sin” that “infected [the country’s] politics” with corruption when the lack of consequences for its high-level participants fostered a sense of impunity–many South Africans have turned to dark comedy as a form of release.

The need for that type of gallows humor may have dipped slightly earlier this month.  President Zuma, after refusing for years to admit he’d done anything wrong and publicly mocking the outcry about Nkandla, finally conceded to the country’s highest court that he should have obeyed the findings of Madonsela’s report. Rather than insisting that President Zuma did nothing illegal, his defense team is now arguing that the president made a mere “mistake of law.”  What explains this stunning reversal? And what will the implications be?

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