Political Corruption and the American People

Article excerpt

Corruption in federal politics is rampant, and its systematic perversion of government lies at the heart of America's appallingly low regard for Congress and the presidency.

That's the dubious premise of "Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics," by Larry J. Sabato and Glenn R. Simpson.

I don't for a minute quibble with the authors' contention that political corruption flourishes or that its prevalence does not trouble many Americans. But it is more problematic to assert, as the authors do, that corruption is the reason voters possess an acidic mistrust of government and regard new campaign promises as so much trash.

Like most political books, "Dirty Little Secrets" explains one thing - in this case political corruption - very well. But political corruption does not by itself explain what ails national politics. Americans are troubled by many things that go on in government, and money brought to politicians by unscrupulous underlings or contributors is only one of them.

"The most fundamental and compelling issue on the national need-to-do agenda," the authors say, "is political reform. Americans have lost faith in the system that sustains their democracy, believing that it serves special interests more than the general citizenry."

To believe this is to believe that dissatisfaction with government has nothing to do with the utter failure of federal welfare policy, the terrifying rise in juvenile crime and the manifest loss of personal security it has spawned, the stagnation of wages for middle- and lower-middle-class workers, a federal debt of more than $5 trillion that threatens the nation's economic health in the 21st century, or the diminishing quality of publicly financed primary and secondary education.

These are basic functions of government and not one of them is being performed to the satisfaction of most voters. That's why a majority of Americans still believe the nation is on the wrong track.

It's quite possible that most Americans would tolerate today's current level of corruption if crime were lower, wages were higher, welfare helped reduce poverty rather than institutionalize it, the debt were lower and schools better. For proof, just look at the comparatively high level of confidence Americans had in Congress and the presidency in the late 1950s and early 1960s when, as the authors point out, political corruption was more widespread than it is now.

In 1960, according to a poll by National Election Studies, more than three-fourths of Americans trusted "government in Washington to do what is right." This was at a time when cash bribes in Washington were, as the authors readily stipulate, quite commonplace.

In fact, the authors are most alarmed by corruption that violates the campaign finance laws passed after Watergate. …