The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. political system is flawed but not corrupt

Activists carry a replica of the Wall Street Bull during a protest advocating campaign finance reform outside the U.S. Capitol in April. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about corruption. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Stephen K. Medvic is the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of “In Defense of Politicians: The Expectations Trap and Its Threat to Democracy” and is at work on a book about campaign finance in the United States.

Though our political system is flawed and perhaps even “rigged” in certain important ways, there is very little political corruption in the United States. This claim is typically met with disbelief. How can anyone argue that our political process is not corrupted by the vast amounts of money spent on campaigns and the countless hours elected officials and their challengers spend raising that money?

One’s answer to that question depends, of course, on one’s definition of “corruption.” The standard definition is that corruption is the use of public position for private gain. From this perspective, the archetypal corrupt act is a bribe. So if we are judging U.S. politics by the number of bribes being taken, we can reach no other conclusion than that there is little political corruption in the United States.

The U.S. and Britain see corruption very differently. Here’s why.

This conclusion is especially true when viewed in comparison with most other nations. According to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, a survey of expert opinion about the level of corruption in 167 countries, only 15 countries were judged to be cleaner than the United States. Most of the countries that scored higher than us — meaning they had less corruption — were in Europe, yet our score of 76 (out of 100) was considerably higher than the average score of 67 in the European Union and Western Europe.

There is, however, an alternative — some would say broader — definition that some scholars argue is a better way to conceptualize corruption. According to this perspective, corruption happens whenever there is a privileging of private interests over the public good in the policymaking process. Under this interpretation, while elected officials may not be reaping private benefit from their positions of power, they are placing the (private) interests of some subset of the public above the collective interests of the people as a whole. When a politically powerful industry gets public subsidies or a well-connected corporation receives a special tax break, it suggests to some that the system has been corrupted.

Why would policymakers provide favors to private interests? Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig argues that they do so because they are dependent on such interests for the campaign funds necessary to mount a competitive campaign. In particular, they are dependent upon wealthy donors. This understanding makes the system, and not the individual policymakers, corrupt. The system is at fault because the behavior it encourages means that “the people alone” are not in charge; instead, the “funders” are.

This view of corruption as favoring private interests over the common good in exchange for financial support from those interests is attractive and may have been the dominant conception for most of U.S. history. However, it is a conception that leads to a misdiagnosis of the problem.

The problem is not that “the people” are not in charge. After all, as election law scholar Rick Hasen has noted, funders are people, too. Why are their interests less legitimate than the interests of any other subset of the people? The interests of environmentalists, of abortion rights advocates, of Second Amendment activists and of evangelicals are also those of a subset of the people, but we don’t tend to worry about the “corrupting” effect of these groups. Yet no one denies that they have influence.

Furthermore, it is hard to imagine what it would mean for “the people alone” to control public policy. How many of the people are necessary to constitute rule by the people? How would we know what the people wanted on any given piece of legislation? Does the public know enough about specific policy proposals to serve as a guide? If we have a hard time formulating how “the people alone” would govern, it’s difficult to articulate exactly how government by the people is being corrupted.

When it comes to politics, corruption is subtler than you think

The real problem is not that some people’s interests occasionally win out over the interests of others. It is that some groups, namely the wealthy, win far more often than other groups. There is evidence that economic elites and business organizations have a greater impact on policy outcomes than do groups representing average citizens. (Whether this is due to their campaign contributions or their influence in culture and society, generally, isn’t entirely clear.) In addition, the candidate with the most money, all else being equal, typically wins in an otherwise competitive election. The combination of these facts suggests that the playing field is tilted toward those with money.

This wouldn’t be the case in a system with true political equality. Since democracy demands such equality, the problem with money in politics is that it undermines an essential principle of democratic government. We can call this corruption if we’d like, but that misses the point and leads to a blanket condemnation of all politicians and, ultimately, to a corrosive cynicism. If we hope to treat what ails our political system, we should move away from the vague term of “corruption” and describe the disease accurately: namely, that there is a lack of political equality in U.S. politics that poses a grave threat to democracy.

Explore these other perspectives:

Trevor Burrus: When it comes to politics, corruption is subtler than you think

Jacob Rowbottom: The U.S. and Britain see corruption very differently. Here’s why.

Zephyr Teachout: How the Supreme Court gets corruption totally wrong

Daniel Treisman: Does more wealth mean less political corruption?

Nancy Gertner: The corruption continuum — When giving gifts bleeds to bribery