President Trump wants his supporters to know that he is still draining the swamp over which he has presided for nearly three years. One of his Democratic rivals, Senator Elizabeth Warren, says Americans are trapped in a “rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.” Her colleague and fellow candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, calls it “a corrupt political system designed to protect the wealthy and the powerful.”
These claims of corruption and rigging make for a strange campaign of ideas, like the one Ms. Warren is lauded for waging and an even more bizarre populism of the kind associated with Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders. Each of them deflects criticism by delegitimizing opposition. Mr. Trump may have perfected that art, but Democrats should be cautious about imitating it. Accusations of corruption are rooted in the assumption that one’s positions are so obviously correct that the only explanation for opposing them is that the opponent has been bought and his or her supporters have been brainwashed.
This corruption chatter, a mainstay of American political history that has accelerated in recent years, is unhealthy for political conversation. It is a film noir conception of politics, in which everyone is good or evil, mostly evil, and no one simply disagrees. It is also inaccurate. American politics has never been cleaner of classic corruption — of the cash-under-the-table Teapot Dome variety — than it is now. The bigger problem is that the political puritanism that sees corruption around every corner actually makes it harder to address the issues in whose name it is invoked.
The contemporary scandal, it is often said, is not that criminal corruption occurs but rather that the political system is legally rigged. It supposedly takes the form of campaign contributions that, Mr. Sanders says, enable corporations to “literally buy elections.” This is, literally, false. Money unquestionably influences elections. But the candidate with the most votes, a commodity that cannot be legally bought or sold, always wins (except when it comes to the presidency, a discussion for another day).
What Mr. Sanders means to say, of course, is that money allows those with an opinion on, or a stake in, a given issue to buy the means of persuading voters that the spenders are right. That was what he meant when, in the second Democratic presidential debate, he defended his single-payer health insurance proposal and warned darkly — although how surprising was it, really? — that private health insurers had purchased advertising time during the program to register their disagreement.
But this “buys” elections only to the extent Mr. Sanders is claiming voters are passive automatons incapable of discernment. This is a paternal populism according to which voters need politicians to protect them from being duped by ensuring they are never spoken to in the first place.
Whether this activity on the part of health insurers is corrupt hinges on what corruption, which is notoriously hard to define, actually means. Critics of the campaign finance system typically warn of a rigged “quid pro quo” arrangement, in which a donor contributes to a campaign on the assumption that the recipient will support the donor’s interests.
But if this is the definition of corruption, it seems to apply equally to the health insurer that spends $25,000 to maintain its right to offer its product and to the grandmother who sends Mr. Sanders $25 and asks him to protect Social Security. The two are separated by degree rather than kind. For her part, Ms. Warren thinks it is corrupt for the wealthy to defend their economic interests, but her campaign also plays to what she believes is the self-interest of her supporters. Why is one corrupt but not the other?
In either case, the money is useful only to buy the means of persuading and mobilizing voters. It would be irrational to do something that alienates voters in order to attract money whose purpose is to persuade them.
That voters are not simply dupes of contributors is clear from the fact that, in the 2016 Republican primary, when Jeb Bush was a powerhouse fund-raiser and Donald Trump relied on the cost-free device of Twitter, there was little evident correlation between money spent and votes received. American voters often blame money in politics for political outcomes they dislike. In fact, the constitutional system is designed to require majorities to persist in supporting something concrete before they prevail. It is difficult to identify instances in American history of an electoral majority wanting something specific that it has not eventually gotten.
Clearly, members of Congress are far wealthier on average than their constituents. This may affect their thinking, but not nearly as much as the fact that each of them holds his or her office by the permission of voters. It is also difficult to deny that contributions correlate with policy outcomes on some issues — although causation is difficult to establish because most major policies trigger spending on both sides — or that large contributors enjoy enhanced access to politicians, who are susceptible to lobbying.
The question is which issues these contributors are able to influence. The answer is those to which voters do not pay attention. This tends to happen in a system that attempts — as in Mr. Trump’s industrial policy or Mr. Sanders’ democratic socialism — to dictate precise economic distributions and consequently involves itself in far more than voters can monitor. Rent-seeking — the attempt to use government power to tilt the market in one’s favor — is certainly a problem. But it arises not simply from the fact that economic favors are sought but also from the fact that they are provided.
Anthropomorphizing economic “systems” that are actually the products of trillions of individual choices further confuses the issue. Ms. Warren may wish to describe the results of those choices as kicking “dirt” on workers, but there is no single identifiable system doing the kicking.
All the claims of rigged systems that now saturate American politics make reasoned conversation more difficult. Whether one supports or opposes it, for example, abolishing the private insurance that hundreds of millions of Americans hold is certainly a radical proposition. Is it really impossible for anyone other than the venal or the duped to oppose the idea?
In reality, the activities swept into the label of corruption — campaign finance and quid-pro-quo negotiation — are important means of building coalitions. Whatever their merit, Ms. Warren’s ambitious plans to remake the economy are doomed unless she is elected along with a Democratic Senate, which will only happen if money is spent to persuade voters to dislodge entrenched Republican incumbents. Given the advantages of incumbency — incumbents, for example, do not have to spend money to garner name recognition — they almost certainly will have to be outspent.
Similarly, earmarked, pork-barrel spending — which the Republican House of Representatives prohibited in 2011 as part of the Tea Party wave — is an invaluable tool for assembling bipartisan majorities for legislation because it helps members of Congress see the good a bill does for their constituents.
The go-to argument that everything is corrupt is, in fact, not intellectual engagement at all. It is an escape from the responsibility to defend one’s position on its merits. It is polarizing because it turns argument, which is healthy in a republic, into accusation. It yields cheap cynicism that falsely regards outcomes with which one disagrees as the product of corruption rather than diversity of opinion. The result is intellectual paralysis, since shallow cynicism does away with the need to make or listen to an argument at all.
This puritan strain in American politics makes it more difficult to find common ground because it stigmatizes, and therefore hardens, opposition. How can there be a legitimate compromise with corruption? It would be healthier for politicians to make their best arguments for their positions, let their opponents argue back and accept the realities that defending one’s own interests is normal, that honest people disagree, and that the candidate who persuades more of them prevails.
Greg Weiner (@GregWeiner1) is a political scientist at Assumption College, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln and the Politics of Prudence.”
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