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Corrupt America

If firm leadership from the top is so critical to reform, is it even possible for a democracy that has grown systemically corrupt to change course?
The United States has become a testing ground for that question. The country’s slide into a kind of genteel kleptocracy began many years ago, arguably in the 1980s, when deregulation fever hit. The lobbying profession exploded, and industries began writing legislation affecting their sectors; public services such as incarceration and war fighting were privatized; the brakes on money in politics were released; and presidents began filling top regulatory positions with bankers. An economy of transactional exchanges took hold in Washington.
Last year was a watershed in this process. In June, the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the legal definition of bribery when it overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Meanwhile, supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — including many progressive advocates of campaign finance reform — could be heard defending the propriety of questionable foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Although Trump’s supporters may think otherwise, his victory and ascent to the White House did not represent regime change; they represented very much more of the same, with a president who has invited top corporate executives not merely to provide advice or draft legislation but also to actually join his team. Such a presidency will only cement the system rigging Trump once decried.
For Americans, as for the people of so many of the countries Rotberg discusses, the expulsion of one individual at the top will not be enough to repair the damaged republic. Americans should not fool themselves into thinking that all they must do is see Trump impeached or get out the vote for a standard Democratic or Republican alternative in 2020. The network that Trump is anchoring in Washington is exploiting a system that Americans have all allowed to evolve and from which they have averted their eyes. That network is empowered now and will prove resilient.


I am a bit skeptical of “tool kit” approaches to fixing such deep-seated problems. But if a committed reformer (or, ideally, a network of reformers) were able to capitalize on the widespread indignation at the United States’ brand of kleptocratic governance and gain power, he or she should focus less on punishing overt corruption after the fact than on establishing behavioral norms that would head off such wrongdoing before it takes place. This reform movement would bring an end to the practice of writing the rules of the political and economic games in ways that favor those who have already amassed excessive power in both domains. It would craft and enforce the rules so as to afford a dignified living to those who perform underappreciated tasks (schoolteachers, those who care for the elderly, small farmers) or who have chosen to build their lives around nonmonetary values.
A policy program to achieve that kind of change would begin with placing sharp curbs on campaign contributions and ending the anonymity that many significant political donors enjoy. Shifting to public-only financing for campaigns may seem radical, but that would be the best solution. Lobbying regulations must be tightened and fiercely enforced. Conflicts of interest must be defined more broadly. Ethical breaches must be swiftly sanctioned in a rigidly nonpartisan fashion, so as to change the incentive structure that currently rewards impropriety and not simply single out isolated offenders. Recent events have demonstrated that the gentleman’s agreement governing the ethical practices of officeholders is toothless in the face of a determined violator. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the U.S. Office of Government Ethics needs disciplinary, not just advisory, powers. In general, federal regulatory agencies must be provided with more resources and independence, not less.
But behavioral norms are not just a matter of legislation. They are a matter of culture, and those who would seek to improve the integrity of the U.S. government must address the cultural shifts that have made the slide toward American kleptocracy possible. For example, they could devise a detailed integrity pact and pressure elected officials across the political spectrum to sign it. It could include a pledge to release all tax filings and disclose all outside affiliations, to spend a certain minimum amount of time interacting with ordinary constituents, and to work for more stringent campaign finance, conflict-of-interest, and oversight legislation and enforcement. Voters could use such pledges as a base line for rating the performance of their representatives.
Most important, would-be reformers must develop an inspiring vision that elevates values other than material growth and the accumulation of money—a vision that celebrates being satisfied with having enough, for example, or the effort to repair battered people and things, or the nurturing of the beauty around us. They must seek to transform the way Americans understand and measure the success of their society.


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