“Draining the Swamp” – How President Trump is making true on his promise

“Drain the swamp” was one of Donald Trump’s battle cries in the election. Many writers on this and many other blogs have expressed deep skepticism that Trump has any interest in fighting corruption, and assert to the contrary that Trump seems poised to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. But that’s not how Trump’s core supporters see things. In their view, Trump is making good on his promise and weeding out the deeply connected interests of US government officials, businesses, media, and civil society—what they view as the “corruption” of U.S. institutions. While most readers of this blog probably find that perspective baffling, it is important for all of us to understand how this constituency thinks about the problem of “corruption” and interprets the reporting on President Trump’s administration in light of that perception.

When Trump’s core supporters think about “corruption” in the U.S.—when they think about the “swamp” that Trump promised to drain—they focus on an alleged cabal of elitist, neoconservative, and liberal interests that are fighting a “war against Trump,” the democratically elected President. The term that is increasingly used in these circles to describe the “swamp” is “Deep State.” The Deep State is, according to Breitbart news, “jargon for the semi-hidden army of bureaucrats, officials, retired officials, legislators, contractors and media people who support and defend established government policies.” (The Wikipedia article on Deep State was only published on Jan 7, 2016, showing the novelty and fast rise of this term). In this worldview, the Deep State was, for example, responsible for the dismissal of national security advisor Michael Flynn. Blame for the dismissal, on this account, lies not with the actions of Michael Flynn, but with the “traitors” in government, collaborating with the corrupt mainstream media (“MSM”)—a view shared by the President himself in a tweet on Feb 15, 2016: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!” Indeed, the view that the MSM is a major colluder in the corruption that protects the powerful and wealthy is another important feature of the worldview that seems widely shared by Trump’s ardent supporters. The list of corrupt traitors to the American people who are part of this “Deep State” includes the Democratic Party, various Republicans who criticize Trump (such as Bill Kristol, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and after the unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare Paul Ryan), and the judiciary (see here and here).

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Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

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Are Better Principals the Answer to the Corruption Problem?

Those in the business of giving policy advice know the surest way to guarantee a policymaker ignores their counsel is to say the problem is “complicated” or “there are no easy solutions” and that the best way to see the advice is accepted is to cast it in the form of a simple, straightforward solution that fits easily onto a single power point slide. World Bank economists have learned this lesson well as their recent report on how developing countries can cure corruption and related governance ills demonstrates.  Making Politics Work for Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement manages to state the solution to the corruption problem in one sentence: Give citizens more information about politicians so they will know which ones to vote out and which ones to keep at the next election.

The authors are able boil the complex problems of corruption and bad governance down into such a neat solution thanks to application of principal-agent theory.  But in avoiding the “it’s complicated”/“no easy solution” Scylla have they veered into the Charybdis of oversimplification?

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Corruption’s Gendered Double Standard

On November 8, 2016 the United States almost elected Hillary Clinton as its first female president. But, if Donald Trump and many of his supporters were to be believed, Secretary Clinton was also one of the most corrupt politicians of all time. This argument appears to have swayed many American voters, who ended up electing Donald Trump (who might actually be the most corrupt person recently elected to the presidency, see here, here, and here). That Trump’s unprecedented accusations of corruption were leveled against the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major political party was not a coincidence.

A great deal of commentary has considered whether women (and especially female politicians and public officials) behave less corruptly than men. (For some prior discussion on this blog, see here.) But I’d like to focus on a different question: Are female politicians accused of corruption treated differently—and judged more harshly—than male politicians? Existing research suggests that they are, which in turn may explain both why allegations of corruption can be more damaging to female politicians, and why female public officials are on the whole less corrupt. Continue reading

Why Does the Chinese Communist Party Tear a Hole in its Own Democracy Cloak?

The People’s Republic of China recently uncovered the biggest vote-buying scandal since its founding in 1949. On September 13, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national legislature, dismissed 45 of the 102 NPC representatives from Liaoning province for securing their seats in the NPC through vote buying. These NPC representatives had apparently bribed representatives to the Liaoning provincial Congress, which elects NPC representatives; 523 out of the 619 Liaoning provincial congress representatives were also implicated in this scandal, and have either resigned or been removed for election rigging, rendering the Liaoning provincial legislature inoperable. The central authorities stated that the “unprecedented” bribery scandal challenged the “bottom line” of China’s socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For many observers, reports of this vote-buying scandal came as a surprise. Some commentators wondered why people would risk getting caught and punished for corruption, just to secure a seat in a legislature that has been derided as little more than a rubber stamp. The most plausible explanation is that a seat on the NPC facilitates access to the rich and powerful, and it is this consideration, rather than the mostly symbolic power of the legislature itself, that motivates candidates to buy votes in NPC elections. (See here, here and here). There is, however, a second puzzle about the recent vote-buying scandal—one that is in fact more puzzling and important, though it has not received as much attention: Why do CCP leaders care about electoral corruption in NPC elections, if the NPC merely rubber-stamps party decisions? True, the CCP under President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a top priority—but given the prevalence of corruption in so many areas of Chinese government, many of which have immediate practical consequences, why target electoral corruption in the NPC?

The question becomes even more interesting when one considers that calling attention to vote-buying in NPC elections—a form of corruption that might otherwise not attract much attention—poses certain risks to the CCP. First, even if the NPC is mostly a rubber stamp legislature, it represents the symbolic core of state power, and is central to the CCP’s “socialist democracy,” a model the Party has long used to resist the Western-style multi-party democracy. As one commentator put it has observed, the exposure of the NPC vote-buying scandal has torn a large hole in the country’s “democracy cloak.” Second, exposing widespread corrupt practices could also increase pressure for systemic reforms. So why did CCP leaders choose to crack down on corruption in the legislature so openly? Continue reading

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading

Do Corrupt Politicians Deserve a Second Chance?

In 2003, Joe Ganim left his fifth term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in disgrace. A federal jury convicted Ganim on sixteen corruption charges, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, and mail fraud, and he served seven years in prison. Yet five years after his release, Ganim is poised to become mayor again, having won the Democratic Party primary (in overwhelmingly Democratic Bridgeport)—defying the predictions of those who thought his corruption sentence would make a political comeback all but impossible. Yet if Bridgeport were located just across the Connecticut border, in neighboring New York, Joe Ganim would not be allowed to run, because New York—along with several other states such as Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—has a disqualification law. Such laws prevent officials who have been convicted of corruption-related crimes from running for elected office, for periods ranging from several years to life (depending on the state). We see something like this approach in many other countries as well, though different countries have adopted varied approaches to the question of whether people convicted of crimes – corruption-related or not – can run for office. In Brazil, politicians convicted of certain enumerated crimes, including corruption-related offenses, are barred for eight years pursuant to a 2009 bill (which had been championed by civil society groups). In Canada, those convicted for corrupt acts must wait seven years from the date of conviction before they can run for the House of Commons (the limit for those convicted of other crimes is five years). In France, courts have the discretion to impose, as part of criminal conviction, a period of up to ten years during which the defendant may not vote or run for public office. Other countries, like Denmark and Finland, leaves the matter up to the parliament, which can vote to disqualify someone convicted of an offense showing untrustworthiness or unfitness for public office.

Are disqualification rules of this sort a good idea? Would it be better if Connecticut had a law like New York’s, which would prevent someone like Joe Ganim from running for life? Should other democracies that suffer from widespread public corruption follow the example of countries like Brazil, which have adopted these sorts of disqualification laws? This solution is indeed a tempting one. After all, the Bridgeport race—and numerous elections elsewhere—show that voters will not always prevent those convicted of serious corruption offenses from seeking and winning public office. Yet the experience of countries that have adopted statutory disqualification signals reasons for caution. Although one must be careful about overly broad generalizations, given the extent of variation in government structure and political culture, disqualification laws raise serious risks, and may not be necessary. Continue reading