Corruption and Arrogance in American Politics

Jeff Tulis does readers a tremendous service by reorienting the contemporary conversation about corruption toward the word’s classical sense: the corruption of institutions. In Machiavelli’s terms, or Montesquieu’s, corruption means turning an institution from its purpose, which is why the Discourses on Livy begin by emphasizing that the key to renewing republics is “to lead them back toward their beginnings.” On this classical account, whose origins lie in the Platonic and Aristotelian accounts of the deterioration of regimes, hijacking the Department of Justice to harass one’s political enemies or using foreign policy to serve one’s reelection is corrupt because the purpose of those institutions is to serve the common rather than a private good. The two may converge, but that is a different kind of corruption than personal venality.

There are several benefits to thinking of corruption in this way. (I would not attribute what follows to Jeff; his posts on this site and at The Bulwark simply provoked these thoughts.) One is that it might break our paranoid or, worse, puritanical reflex to suspect corruption lurking behind every dispute, so much so that the latter proves the presence of the former. 

That disposition is rooted in a profound moral certainty—often pompous and just as often genuinely pious—whose animating principle is this: I am so obviously and objectively right that the only explanation for a rational person disagreeing with me is that he or she is corrupt. 

Yet that disposition itself is a form of classical corruption—a corruption, one might say, of corruption. A free society in general, and the American constitutional order in particular, thrives on conflict. Delegitimizing disagreement corrupts one of the core principles of the regime and requires us to return it to its beginnings. That is true both because mechanisms like the separation of powers depend on institutional conflict and because, as James Wallner reminds us, conflict itself has gotten a bad rap in contemporary politics.

In his book Coping: On the Practice of GovernmentDaniel Patrick Moynihan, reflecting on the broken hopes of the 1960s, offered this postulate: “The polity must take care what it undertakes to provide, for failure to do so is likely to be attributed to malevolent purpose.” Today, government does not have to fail to justify an accusation of malevolence. Disagreement alone is sufficient proof.

The premise that corruption is hiding under every rock—that it must be, because my side is right and there must consequently be some explanation other than legitimate dispute for others seeing things differently—is playing out dangerously in Donald Trump’s end game, whatever it is. His allegations of electoral fraud are fantastical, but their foundation—Donald Trump is so clearly superior to Joe Biden, so obviously beloved a shepherd of his people, that it is inconceivable that he lost—is simple.

It should also be familiar. Progressives have been deploying this tactic for years. Its chief form is the demand to regulate campaign contributions because they are the only explanation for progressives or their policies falling short. The claim, distilled to its essence, is that voters are dupes who will believe anything their leaders, using donated money to communicate, tell them. On this reasoning, politicians are vehicles for propaganda from moneyed forces promoting venal interests, and citizens are passive receptacles for it.

There are several problems with that as an empirical explanation, including its patronizing assumption that the American public is a colossal tabula rasa that has no views on politics until campaign strategists come along to fill in the slate. Yet recent elections call that thesis into serious question. Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination on a shoestring budget, while the best funded establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, fell flat. In 2020, Jaime Harrison, the Democrat challenging Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, somehow managed to spend $130 million in South Carolina, a state where advertising is relatively cheap. Harrison lost by double digits.

Needless to say, subtleties matter. For example, campaign spending is unlikely to cause a rock-ribbed Republican to vote for Jaime Harrison, but it might soften the voter’s enthusiasm for Lindsey Graham. Still, these patterns suggest the astounding conclusion that voters are actually capable of identifying what they want even when someone, perish the thought, is suggesting that they conclude otherwise. That is a good thing, since it is a predicate for self-government. Madison wrote in Federalist 55 that irrational obsession with corruption was ultimately anti-republican:

The sincere friends of liberty, who give themselves up to the extravagancies of this passion, are not aware of the injury they do their own cause. As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. 

Yet there is a deeper point. It is not simply that voters are sentient. It is the moral arrogance required to assume any disagreement is attributable to corruption. Donald Trump is displaying that now. But it is worth noting the disposition’s deep roots in American Progressivism. The Progressive sociologist Lester Frank Ward’s call for “a system of scientific legislation” is a case in point. If legislation is scientific, disagreement is irrational. If disagreement is irrational, the only explanations for it are stupidity and corruption. Given the unassailable, driven-snow purity of the American electorate—the one force in politics that above all others must never be criticized—that leaves corruption. 

But the most important disputes in politics—the ones that infuse it with meaning—are not objectively resolvable. They are matters of prudence. Reducing politics to a search for the objectively right answer desiccates civic life. It is also an invitation to abuse, such as the campaign reformers’ insistence that someone else stop talking because a gullible citizen might be listening. We would do better, in Machiavelli’s formulation, to return to our beginnings and embrace conflict as both an inevitable dimension and a positive good of politics.

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2 thoughts on “Corruption and Arrogance in American Politics

  1. Fantastical is a great word, but a better application of it is in need.

    To believe there was not significant corruption in this election is to be willfully blind and partisan.

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