Our Crisis of Corruption

The soft guardrails of democracy are no longer strong enough to stop our slow crawl toward autocracy.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis

When I started writing this early in the week, it was my intent to describe how Trump’s tenure as president would inevitably have consequences on our system of government, even long after his departure from the White House. What I didn’t anticipate was that we’d see those consequences much sooner and so viscerally.

It’s tempting to succumb to the eloquent speeches given by members of Congress just hours after a failed insurrection overran the seat of our federal government — that violence fails in the face of order, and that those who appease hostile forces will be met with unified opposition. It’s the duty of our representatives to instill hope, and they shouldn’t be faulted for that. But we shouldn’t be so naive as to believe this marks the end of a divisive, vitriolic era of politics. Those who stormed the Capitol may indeed be a minority, but it’s a minority that’s grown steadily over the past decade, fueled and fed by a toxic media environment and shameless politicians motivated by their own ambitions. Before Trump, before social media, they found their genesis in the early days of Tea Party protests, where the prevailing conspiracy theory of the day was that the nation’s first Black president was not a citizen, and they proudly touted violently racist signage at their rallies calling for his removal.

Aptly put by Tanzina Vega this week, what happened at the Capitol “is not unbelievable”, but “the logical culmination of events”. Our current legal framework strengthens polarization, shields demagogues, and allows legal corruption to fester while more people across the political spectrum lose faith in the idea that their government truly works for them. Meanwhile, Trump’s tenure has laid bare the inherent weakness of relying on tradition to uphold decency in government: it only works when the guilty offender has a capacity for shame. Those willing to bend precedent for personal gain, including those in Congress who parrot his baseless lies in order to curry favor from his base, are free to do until it breaks. The plethora of his offenses are well documented, but astonishingly few are definitively illegal, instead reducing us to circular arguments of whether they’re ethical. These blurred lines, and the so-called “soft guardrails” of democracy, allow our current culture of corruption, and the accompanying escalation of political violence, to endure.

Consider for a moment that just in 2018, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached and sentenced to 24 years in prison on corruption charges. In 2016, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was removed from power for far less egregious misconduct. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under indictment for a series of corruption scandals, will soon face trial after the country’s parliament refused to grant him immunity from prosecution. While those nations take corruption seriously as a punishable offense, we’ve watched helplessly for four years while the presidency and the Trump Organization have been melded together to enrich one family on one hand while being used as a vehicle to influence foreign policy on the other. And since 2017, the United States has fallen far enough down the Democracy Index to be classified a “flawed democracy”, ranking just slightly higher than Malta. Our self-congratulatory platitudes of being the world’s “greatest democracy” ring hollow upon any reasonable examination.

What’s dangerous isn’t the prospect of watching a flagrantly corrupt president one day be removed from office for abuses of power, but failing to swallow our pride and choosing to believe that tradition will preserve our democratic republic. It’s the latter that will much sooner corrode public trust, the foundation of any legitimate government. If legal ambiguities protect those willing to test the limits of democratic integrity, it’s well past time to reinforce those soft guardrails with ironclad, bright-line standards within the Constitution that leave no room for creative interpretation.

What we needed four years ago still remains the case:

  1. Allowing Congress to regulate campaign financing and spending to remove the distorting influence of big money in politics, and replacing it with a system that democratizes the flow of money into campaigns.

Four years out from “Drain the Swamp”, the Trump Administration has become a case study of the myriad of ways existing corruption can mutate into something horrifyingly worse. Preventing his model of governance from being replicated in the future requires basic standards than any elected official or Cabinet member should be obliged to follow:

  1. Require disclosure of at least ten years of tax returns and detailed, audited financial interest statements for all federal candidates seeking to appear on the ballot.

Whether by statute or amendment, debating the realistic probability of passing these reforms is of little value. Our moment is marked by political violence, conspiracy theories, and a slow crawl toward outright opposition to democratic rule. These are the flashing red warning signs of a system in peril and demand our immediate action. These changes won’t fix everything; the same media that gave a platform to Trump’s message for so long is in dire need of reform, and our education system fails to foster civic deliberation or critical debate for future voters, allowing misinformation to thrive. The Senate is likely to live on as an anti-democratic vessel of obstruction, and wealth inequality cannot be overlooked as a major contributing factor to our polarization. But believing a new administration can single handedly fix the rot beneath our institutions will wind up being a Pyrrhic victory that leaves us more embittered and cynical than ever before. The Founders understood that the Constitution was a flawed document and gave future generations a process to amend it for a reason. Those who claim to care about that document, regardless of political affiliation, are obliged to meet the moment and recognize how close we came this week to suffering an irreversible stain on the citadel of its legitimacy.

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