Corruption matters

Amid all the post-election “how the hell did we get here” analysis, a lot of which has focused squarely and rightly on the myriad failures of the Democratic Party, another piece of the puzzle has gotten lost a bit, and that has to do with what Donald Trump represented to a lot of voters–a vote against “the establishment.” We live at a time when, across the board, confidence in public institutions is as low as it’s been in my lifetime, and that’s why everybody who runs for federal office tries to portray himself or herself as an “outsider” even when that claim is laughably absurd. The allure of the “outsider” candidate is simply too powerful…so powerful that the imprimatur helped Trump, a man manifestly unqualified to be president who’s not even really an “outsider,” get elected anyway. This lack of confidence in public institutions is problematic in its own right, regardless of how the election shook out, but it’s become more acute now that it’s helped bring us President Trump.

Why is confidence in public institutions so low? Well, to be sure, decades of right-wing rhetoric about “the liberal media” and how “evil” government is have contributed quite a bit, particularly as Democratic Party elites have preferred to hide from that debate rather than engage with it. But particularly now, after the Iraq War and the housing crash among other things, a big part of the reason why confidence in public institutions is so low is that our public institutions simply don’t deserve our confidence. Writing in Foreign Policy, Sarah Chayes, a Carnegie Endowment scholar who’s written on corruption and its impacts around the world, offers an absolutely merciless and well-deserved critique of American corruption and the role it played in this election:

In the past 10 years, populations have rejected “rigged systems” that had stood for decades. They have risen up in mass protests in Brazil, Guatemala, South Africa, and South Korea. They have overthrown their governments in open insurrections like the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Maidan. Or they have fallen in behind self-proclaimed Robin Hoods such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Occasionally, they have joined violent religious movements like the Islamic State or Boko Haram.

With Trump’s election, the United States just joined this list.

It might make his voters uncomfortable to hear that they’ve behaved much as my former neighbors in Kandahar, Afghanistan, who re-embraced the Taliban in their disgust at the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s government. Hillary Clinton voters might be equally upset to consider the degree to which the United States has come to resemble that regime or those of other corrupt countries I have been studying.

We Americans may not be subjected to shakedowns by the police, the judge, or the county clerk. But consider current realities: Networks that weave together public officials and business magnates (think the food or energy industries, pharmaceuticals, or Wall Street) have rewritten our legislation to serve their own interests. Institutions that have retained some independence, such as oversight bodies and courts, have been deliberately disabled — starved of operating funds or left understaffed. Practices that, while perhaps not technically illegal, clearly cross the line to the unethical, the inappropriate, or the objectively corrupt have been defended by those who cast themselves as bulwarks of reason and integrity.

I think Chayes is being too generous; ask black Americans if they’re subject to “shakedowns by the police, the judge, or the county clerk” and you’ll get a much different answer than you’d get from white Americans. But her thesis, that American institutions have just become rotten, and people are lashing out in whatever ways they think they can, is hard to argue. She believes we’ve lost even the concept of “corruption,” that we’ve legalesed it and narrowed its definition to the point where obvious examples of corruption or potentially corrupt practices are everywhere and yet none of them are technically corrupt:

In a country full of sophisticated lawyers and lobbyists and rationalizers, it is now urgent to ask whether we still understand what corruption is. To say it’s what is proscribed by law is to fall into a logical sinkhole.

What does corruption mean when a senior public official receives gifts from foreign leaders, via an institution bearing her name, while she is making decisions regarding these same foreign leaders? How should someone like me talk about corruption overseas when five different police departments use force against peoples whose lands were stolen through repeated treaty violations, on behalf of a private company pleading the letter of property laws?

What is the definition of corruption when a bank defrauds millions of customers without losing its license? When 2 million American adults are behind bars for trivial offenses, their lives permanently derailed, while no legal institution has punished any executive for bringing about the collapse of the world economy?

As Chayes notes, when citizens react to corruption they generally wind up installing new regimes that only build upon past practices and ratchet the corruption up to a new level, and given what we’ve seen from Trump so far, that looks like exactly what the United States has done. We have a chance to start clawing back our institutions in two years, but the people running for office, wanting to be in charge of those institutions, have to commit to cleaning them up.

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