Good Politics Is the Key to Good Government Reform Requires Voters to Come to Terms with Power and Influence

Article excerpt

MANY Americans regard the practice of politics - persuasion, influence, compromise, decisionmaking - as corrupt. In so doing they make reform more difficult.

Ask any talk-show audience and they'll tell you that everyone and everything in Washington is up for sale. Not only do members of Congress accept campaign contributions from political-action committees and lobbyists prowl the halls, but members of the White House staff steal towels from the Navy!

Corruption is serious business. Where contracts are being "skimmed" or decisions bought and sold, we ought to be worried. But citizens of nations like Zaire, Italy, Russia, and Brazil might wonder why we're so upset about a White House golf outing, when they have seen corruption that shakes societies to their roots.

What's going on here is not some sudden upsurge in venality nor merely a symptom of post-cold-war malaise. It is the result of deep forces in our political culture. We are both puritans and go-getters, institutional tinkerers and inheritors of revolutionary dreams. We like the rough-and-tumble competition of private interests but also dwell upon virtue and redemption.

We dislike government yet expect it to be perfected. We play with the rules, weakening leaders and fragmenting institutions, then wonder why they are so vulnerable. What we are doing is taking the politics out of politics.

There is no way government can be orderly and coherent or work at all without the exercise of power. Nor can it be made pure. Opening up the process - a curious demand since ours is among the most "open" democracies - doesn't automatically put power in the hands of everyday citizens. It rewards the organized, the well-represented, and the informed.

Officials and scholars concerned with corruption in the developing world are increasingly looking at ways to encourage and protect the participation of citizens and private interests in public life. Historically this makes sense. Limits on power only began to emerge when somebody other than numero uno had enough clout to make demands he could not ignore. Moreover, where private interests are active they can watch each other, helping to enforce the rules they accept as important. …