View this article at Policy Review, August/September 1999

ELIZABETH DREW.  The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why. BIRCH LANE PRESS. 278 pages. $21.95 

IS AMERICAN POLITICS corrupt? Those who raise the issue usually think it is, and the reason they think so is money. The specter is a grim one: Vast moneyed interests — corporations, wealthy individuals, single-issue groups — seek to work the political system to their own advantage. Our politicians either eagerly assign themselves as tools of these interests, in order to enrich their campaigns, or soon find themselves the victims of them, targeted for political destruction for hewing an independent line. A political process in which politicians are bought and sold — that is the condition of American governance we are invited to contemplate.

Not, to be sure, that most of those making this accusation are quite willing to pull the trigger. Almost no one names Rep. X, Sens. Y and Z, and administration officials A, B, and C as having been bought and paid for. We do, after all, have laws against bribery, taking illegal gratuities, using your office for personal financial gain or for the personal financial benefit of others, and other forms of corruption in office — as well as corresponding laws aimed at those trying to influence public officials improperly. These are serious crimes. Nor are the laws merely window dressing, the tribute vice pays to virtue in an otherwise corrupt system. From time to time, public officials and private citizens go off to prison for running afoul of them. So in this system supposedly shot through with corruption, where are the specific accusations of corrupt action?

Well, the story goes, these are the kinds of charges that are notoriously difficult to prove — especially those involving a quid pro quo. Corruption rarely takes the form of the explicit promise of a particular vote in exchange for a sackful of cash. It has been 20 years since ABSCAM, the FBI sting operation that caught a handful of U.S. representatives and a senator on videotape reaching such an accommodation. Rather, the corruption of our system, in the view of most of those who say it is corrupt, is a product of the insidiously corrosive effect of money on the political process. If money cannot be shown to buy a specific vote, yea or nay, it can be shown to facilitate access, to obtain its provider a place at the table where his business is settled, to attract attention among many competing demands for the attention of our politicians. This can and does become the functional equivalent of a quid pro quo. It’s not that everyone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, provable in a court of law, of crimes of corruption; it’s that no one is innocent of corruption.

Or rather, the only ones presumptively innocent are those who stand up to challenge the system. Naturally, in this reckoning, the corrupt system stands ready to resist such challenges. Heroic efforts to produce reform come to nothing because of the power of money, interest, and guile in defense of the status quo. Meanwhile, or so the story of corruption goes, the American public increasingly tunes politics out, settling instead for the view that the system is corrupt, that both parties are tainted, and that the people are largely powerless to change it. They don’t vote, and they don’t seem to care, and though they should, the fact that they don’t is directly attributable to the cynical and self-interested hijacking of the political system and our government by those moneyed interests.

Such, in the main, is the story Elizabeth Drew tells in her latest book on Washington, The Corruption of American Politics. Drew is an estimable observer of the Washington scene, which she has reported on for the New Yorker and elsewhere, and in 11 books, since the Nixon administration. It is probably fair to characterize the perspective she brings to her writing as that of a liberal-minded reformer in pursuit of both activist government and “good” government. This makes her sympathies a better fit with the Democratic mainstream, obviously, than with the conservative Republican mainstream, where skepticism about government’s ability to solve problems tilts, in her view, all too readily into an anti-government cynicism she loathes. But she can be harsh on Democrats as well (not least, in this case, on President Clinton). Most important, Elizabeth Drew is unusual these days in that she takes Washington seriously and reports on it honestly, rightly finding in the goings-on of the nation’s capital material worth trying to record and analyze at greater length and in greater depth than our media culture currently tolerates. Agree or disagree with her analysis, it is food for thought, and she is worth reading for her detailed reportage alone.

The Corruption of American Politics begins with the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms of 1974 and proceeds to describe the succeeding 25 years as a systematic effort to undo their good intentions by means fair and foul. Drew describes the oppressive money-grubbing required of all politicians and the culture of contributions among the lobbyists and others whose business it is to influence them. She chronicles the growing importance of “soft money,” the large contributions individuals, corporations, labor unions, and other organizations are allowed to make to political parties, thus circumventing the legal limits on giving to individual campaigns. She tells the tale of the rise of “independent expenditures,” the vast and unrestricted sums spent by outside groups on “voter education” ads in fact designed to benefit one candidate over another.

At the center of her book is the story of the frustrating hearings into 1996 campaign finance conducted by Sen. Fred Thompson and the failure of the 106th Congress to enact campaign finance reform despite majority support in both chambers of Congress. In Drew’s telling, it’s the story of special interests uniting to defeat the public interest. A sub-theme here is the growing partisan rancor of Washington, itself largely a product of the demands that narrow interest groups make on the political parties. This partisanship, in Drew’s view, reached its culmination (at least to date) in the impeachment of President Clinton.

Now, it would take the chief K Street lobbyist for Old Nick himself to defend our current system of campaign finance and money politics as models of good governance. At the same time, however, we ought to be careful. There are many currents in Washington politics. Money is surely one of them. But it is not the only one. An exclusive focus on “corruption” of this sort can lead to a distorted perspective on how Washington works.

LET US GRANT that people often operate from low motives. This point Drew amply proves, if indeed it needed further proving. She quotes more than a few unsavory lobbyist types describing (anonymously, of course) how they have successfully manipulated the system. And it is surely also true that elected officeholders have to spend a vast amount of time raising money, mainly in the form of “hard money” campaign contributions of $1,000 or less. Likewise, the other ways in which a politician expects people with money to do good works now include such familiar displays of respect and affection as contributing to the politician’s “leadership PAC,” as well as such exotica as endowing university chairs in the name of the politician, or buying expensive tables at the politician’s spouse’s favorite charity dinner. Arm-twisting? Surely. One pays to play.

Likewise, it is not hard to point to evidence of the way in which money buys access and influence, this side of bribery. One may begin with the particularly egregious conduct that has been the specialty of the Clinton White House in this as in so many other areas: the overnights in the Lincoln bedroom, the coffees in the map room, all for large contributors. It is possible that these or other activities crossed the threshold into criminality as laid out in our current laws (we will never know, since there will never be an investigation sufficiently credible to settle the question). But whether they did or not, the notion that a lobbyist should contribute $5,000 from his PAC to attend a golf outing with influential senators is thoroughly familiar to and accepted by both parties, as well as all lobbyists and their clients, too.

This is the “corruption” Drew and others lament. And yet. Have we really taken so long a leap from representative democracy, fair play, and the pursuit of the public interest? Are the parties and the politicians really so “for sale” as all that? Is American government by implication no more than a sham republic in which the supposed representatives of the people are in truth a fig leaf for the plutocrats?

Not exactly. Consider a couple of notorious examples (notorious, that is, in the minds of members of each party as they contemplate the other): The tobacco companies give a lot of money, mostly to Republicans; trial lawyers give a lot of money, mostly to Democrats. OK: But why that way and not the other way around? Why didn’t the trial lawyers seek their fortune with Republicans and the tobacco companies with Democrats? More to the point, if you are in the business of buying political parties to do your bidding, wouldn’t it be prudent to buy both of them? Is it just that the tobacco companies ran out of money buying up the Republican Party and the lawyers ran out making the Democrats a wholly owned subsidiary?

Of course it isn’t. It’s that the Democratic Party isn’t for sale to Big Tobacco nor the GOP to the plaintiff’s bar. The chief justification of the contingency-fee arrangements that have enriched trial lawyers is that they ensure that everyone has access to the courts when they believe they have been injured, whether they can afford a lawyer or not. This argument finds a natural affinity with the orthodox Democratic view on equality — making sure the rich are not the only ones who can enjoy the fruit of the system. Likewise, Republicans have a tendency to speak up for business interests, and also generally see such things as smoking (and diet, exercise, what kind of car to drive, etc.) as matters of personal liberty, not of grave social consequence. They are accordingly more inclined to give a hearing to arguments of the kind the tobacco companies make.

The essential fallacy of the “corruption” argument is this assumption: Because one has a particular reason to take a position (namely, the contributions one receives), one has that single reason only. But Washington isn’t that mercenary. Ideas, principles, and ideological orientation matter.  They also attract money. But the ideas usually come first. As recently as 1996, Microsoft was just a giant corporation making money hand over fist, paying little attention to Washington. Then came trouble with the Justice Department on antitrust grounds. Microsoft naturally sought, found, and perhaps funded allies who took a dim view of the utility of such antitrust actions. Microsoft did not create the political sentiment.

What about the cases in which members of Congress with no particular history of involvement in a given issue nonetheless hew to the party line — which happens to correspond to contributions to the party? This is, of course, a common phenomenon. But it, too, is less mercenary than it appears. The phenomenon in question is the practice of coalition politics. The idea, from the politician’s point of view, is to assemble a coalition of disparate groups that collectively will help create an electoral majority. When possible, a politician accommodates the wishes of members of the coalition, whether he has a personal stake in their agenda or not — for the general good of the party. This is not so much prostitution as it is political strategy.

Drew worries that coalition members will hijack a party and the political process, forcing it in a direction opposed by a more general public interest. She sees this phenomenon underlying President Clinton’s impeachment: The “Christian right” demanded that Clinton be impeached, and lo, Republicans impeached Clinton. Individual members who were not themselves true-believer Clinton-haters acted out of fear that if they voted against impeachment, they might face disagreeable and expensive primary challenges from the right.

It is certainly easy to see why a partisan Democrat would want to call this “corruption,” since it suggests that the majority House vote for two articles of impeachment was illegitimate. But it is hard to understand why anyone else should see it as “corrupt.” Of course the conservative wing of the Republican Party — the term “Christian right” is a tendentious and inaccurate Democratic characterization — pressed for impeachment. Some of its members did indeed threaten all manner of reprisals for deviation. But how credible these threats might be, here and in numerous other areas in which special interests threaten reprisal, is a subject Drew does not explore in any detail; she generally deems it sufficient to note that someone has made a threat. Even supposing that these threats were credible and did indeed sway some members (as opposed to the unexplored possibility that members might find it convenient to accuse others of voting out of political necessity, not conscience), what exactly is the non-corrupt alternative? Members of Congress reaching their decisions on matters of great and minor public import without any hindrance from political pressure, whether moneyed or otherwise?

The determinist view that money buys politicians in our corrupt political culture is, in its way, as naive as the notion that legislating in Washington proceeds with the smooth and orderly disinterestedness described in high school civics texts. Perversely, the views have much in common: The implicit premise of some of our reformers seems to be that if only we could strip away the money — that is, the corruption — our politics would consist of the enlightened interplay of the ideas of reasonable people striving only for the common good. This is utopia — a vision of good politics only slightly more unreal than its dystopic counterpart, namely the perception that our current political system is hopelessly corrupted by money.

There is good reason to think that Elizabeth Drew, though hardly she alone, has a rather pristine view of how politics should operate. Consider her rather remarkable assessment of recent occupants of the Oval Office:

Clinton’s failure to lead on campaign finance reform was of a piece with his general failure to lead. And his presidency contributed to the decline of the Office of the President. His wasn’t the first presidency to do so, but Clinton’s own contribution was substantial and of historical importance. His flawed presidency was another disappointment and added to the cumulative negative impact, coming as it did after the disillusionment caused by the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War and Watergate, the disappointment of the Ford and Carter presidencies, the societal divisions of the Reagan presidency (though Reagan himself remained popular). The limited vision of the Bush presidency was another disappointment. That Clinton remained popular during most of his presidency doesn’t belie the point. 

Good heavens. Here we are the world’s sole superpower, the economic engine that kept the world economy afloat during global financial crisis — having won the Cold War; established a liberal regime of world trade; achieved long-term price stability; balanced the federal budget; and, oh yes, having taught modern democratic principles to much of the world, at a minimum by example, often by advocacy, and sometimes during occupation after spilling our own blood in war, for more than 200 years — and to Elizabeth Drew, the story of our recent presidential history is the story of one failure and disappointment after another.

This is the point at which an overactive commitment to a view of “the corruption of American politics” causes a loss of perspective and a failure of judgment. Politics is messy and its practitioners are rarely perfect gents. But those who find in its practice only reason for disillusionment probably needed to lose those illusions anyway.