Corruption in politics is timeless problem

Published 10:39 pm Tuesday, December 16, 2008

After reading the federal criminal complaint filed against the Illinois governor last week, I could think only one thing: Willie Stark, meet Rod Blagojevich. Of course the governor is innocent until proven guilty, but the indictment is thick, well-sourced and very, very specific.

Of Illinois’ immediate past eight governors, Blagojevich would be the fourth sent to prison. That is a stunning statistic, and it reminds us of how bad a culture of corruption is once it takes hold. States such as Oregon and Virginia have developed governmental cultures that are clean — voters and the political class alike reject corruption as antithetical to what they are. Citizens and politicians in other states, e.g. New Jersey and Illinois, seem to accept a certain amount of corruption as the cost of doing business. That is corrosive, and eventually leads to such a toxic environment that it is plausible a governor could attempt to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate, seek to have a journalist fired using threats that equal little more than petty extortion, and engage in such simple and obvious graft that the entire nation stands in a stunned gaze.

Who is to blame for acts of corruption? The guilty officials, of course, are the people we must hold culpable. Yet, the citizenry also bears its share of the rap once a culture of corruption develops because they have tolerated it. The public shouldn’t accept corruption under any guise — the people possess the means to turn dirty pols out of office and they have a responsibility to do so.

Today we reprint an excerpted portion of my and Glenn Simpson’s book “Dirty Little Secrets” for readers to consider as the Blagojevich prosecution makes its way through the courts — and headlines.

“In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve.”

—Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”

Like Jefferson, we recognize the universality of corruption, its inevitability in every regime. Yet the standards and morals existing in any society affect the perception and reality of corruption, even its very definition. Scholars have argued for centuries about the proper definition and nature of corruption. Those who wish to treat it narrowly see corruption as limited to its most outrageous manifestations: bribery, extortion, and graft. But most who have studied the subject believe corrupt politics extends far beyond these obvious and unquestionable sins, especially in the United States where the press and public tend to demand relative purity in the conduct of governmental and political affairs (even while often cynically expecting the worst from their officials).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the American people have been more perceptive than the insiders in sensing the deterioration in their politics. Public disgust, anger, and alienation have been steadily mounting, finding expression not just at the polls but in a wide array of grassroots sentiments, from the disturbing militia fringe groups to the broadly based term-limits movement. But neither militias nor term limits will correct the deep-seated defects of American politics, in part because these alleged antidotes attack the symptoms rather than the causes of the country’s maladies.

The ‘Principles’ of Corruption

1. Corruption has no ideology, no partisan coloration. Throughout human history, corruption has been a constant, occurring to varying degrees in every kind of nation-state government and society.

2. While corruption is inevitable and a constant, its precise manifestations are ever changing.

3. Corruption flourishes in secrecy and wherever the people and the press tolerate it. Cockroaches and dirty campaigners love and live in the dark shadows. When their activities are undisclosed, the corrupters go about their business unimpeded. When the news media decline to explore and investigate suspicious practices, they fail in their most basic responsibilities. When the electorate learns of such practices via the press or other means and tolerates corruption, the voters contribute to an environment that nurtures corruption.

4. A system of government or politics can be at least as corrupting as human nature itself. We have studied politicians in close proximity for years, and as much as it may disappoint the cynics, we have not found politicians to be venal as a class.

5. Any crusade to eradicate corruption is naive and doomed to failure, but corruption can be controlled and limited. Sunshine is the most powerful disinfectant for corruption, and the exposure can force corrupt custom to change by turning the socially or politically acceptable into the unacceptable, utilizing the awesome power of public opinion.