Political Corruption in America, Then and Now

Zephyr Teachout is a law professor at Fordham University. She recently ran against Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary, a quixotic venture if her goal was to become the Governor of New York. Her more realistic goals included calling attention to Cuomo’s political shenanigans, highlighting ways to improve our politics and maybe selling a few copies of her book (we all have to eat).

The book is Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. The snuff box was a diamond-encrusted gift that Louis XVI gave to our ambassador to France. “Citizens United” is the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and other organizations to influence elections as much as possible by spending unlimited amounts of money.

From a review of Corruption in America by the journalist Thomas Frank:

Today’s [Supreme Court] understands “corruption” as a remarkably rare malady, a straight-up exchange of money for official acts. Any definition broader than that, the justices say, transgresses the all-important First Amendment. Besides, as Justice Anthony Kennedy announced in the Citizens United decision, the court now knows that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” — a statement that I guess makes sense somehow in law-land but sounds to the layman’s ear like the patter of a man who has come unzipped from reality….

Our current Supreme Court, in Citizens United, “took that which had been named corrupt for over 200 years” — which is to say, gifts to politicians — “and renamed it legitimate.” Teachout does not exaggerate. Here is Justice Kennedy again, in the Citizens United decision: “The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach. The government has ‘muffle[d] the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy.’ ”

You read that right: The economy needs to be represented in democratic politics, or at least the economy’s “most significant segments,” whatever those are, and therefore corporate “speech,” meaning gifts, ought not to be censored. Corporations now possess the rights that the founders reserved for citizens, and as Teachout explains, what used to be called “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.”

Being “unzipped from reality” aptly describes much of our politics, including a series of decisions by our Republican-dominated Supreme Court.

Did it matter that the Supreme Court helped George Bush get elected in 2000, which made it possible for him to be reelected in 2004? David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, reminds us:

… when Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor announced her retirement and Chief Justice Rehnquist died in office in 2005, President Bush, not Al Gore or a successor, had the privilege of appointing two new justices and shaping the Court for years to come. Had a Democratic president been able to replace Rehnquist and O’Connor, constitutional law today would be dramatically different. Affirmative action would be on firm constitutional ground. The Voting Rights Act would remain in place. The Second Amendment would protect only the state’s authority to raise militias, not private individuals’ right to own guns. Women’s right to terminate a pregnancy would be robustly protected. The validity of Obamacare would never have been in doubt. Consumers and employees would be able to challenge abusive corporate action in class action lawsuits. And Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down regulations on corporate political campaign expenditures and called into question a range of campaign spending rules, would have come out the other way. But it was not to be.

Returning to Thomas Frank’s review of Zephyr Teachout’s book, it’s hard to believe that political lobbying used to be shameful, even criminal, not a multi-billion-dollar industry:

Once upon a time, lobbying was regarded as obviously perfidious; in California it was a felony; and contracts to lobby were regarded as reprehensible by the Supreme Court. Here is a justice of that body in the year 1854, delivering the court’s decision in a case concerning lobbyists and lobbying contracts:

“The use of such means and such agents will have the effect to subject the state governments to the combined capital of wealthy corporations, and produce universal corruption, commencing with the representative and ending with the elector. Speculators in legislation, public and private, a compact corps of venal solicitors, vending their secret influences, will infest the capital of the Union and of every state, till corruption shall become the normal condition of the body politic, and it will be said of us as of Rome —omne Romae venale [in Rome, everything is for sale].

Well, folks, it happened all right, just as predicted. State governments subject to wealthy corporations? Check. Speculators in legislation, infesting the capital? They call it K Street. And that fancy Latin remark about Rome? They do say that of us today. Just turn on your TV sometime and let the cynicism flow.

And all of it has happened, Teachout admonishes, because the founders’ understanding of corruption has been methodically taken apart by a Supreme Court that cynically pretends to worship the founders’ every word. “We could lose our democracy in the process,” Teachout warns, a bit of hyperbole that maybe it’s time to start taking seriously.

Considering how money pollutes our politics, and how gerrymandering, vote suppression, low turnout (especially among the young and the poor) and the Constitution itself skew the results, the idea that America is an oligarchy, not a democracy, doesn’t sound hyperbolic at all.  

Nevertheless, quixotic or not, I’m still going to vote in a couple weeks for the Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate (he’s sure to win) and the House (she’s sure to lose), as well as for bail reform and more environmental funding. It’s the least I can do.