Sabato's Crystal Ball

Corruption Most Foul

Revisiting the Timeless Principles of Corruption in Politics

UVA Center for Politics December 11th, 2008

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After reading the federal criminal complaint filed against the Illinois governor this past Tuesday we at The Crystal Ball could think only one thing: Willie Stark, meet Rod Blagojevich. Of course the governor is innocent until proven guilty, but the indictment is thick, well sourced, and very, very specific. Of Illinois’ immediate past eight governors, Blagojevich would be the fourth sent to prison. That is a stunning statistic, and it reminds us of how bad a culture of corruption is once it takes hold. States such as Oregon and Virginia have developed governmental cultures that are clean–voters and the political class alike reject corruption as antithetical to what they are. Citizens and politicians in other states, e.g. New Jersey and Illinois, seem to accept a certain amount of corruption as the cost of doing business. That is corrosive, and eventually leads to such a toxic environment that it is plausible a governor could attempt to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate, seek to have a journalist fired using threats that equal little more than petty extortion, and engaged in such simple and obvious graft that the entire nation stands in a stunned gaze.

Who is to blame for acts of corruption? The guilty officials, of course, are the people we must hold culpable. Yet, the citizenry also bears its share of the rap once a culture of corruption develops because they have tolerated it. The public shouldn’t accept corruption under any guise–the people possess the means to turn dirty pols out of office and they have a responsibility to do so.

As we made our way through the complaint filed against Blagojevich, we were reminded of a passage Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato wrote with Glenn Simpson in their book, Dirty Little Secrets. Today we reprint an excerpted portion of Dirty Little Secrets for our readers to consider as the Blagojevich prosecution makes its way through the courts–and headlines.

-The Editors



In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.

-Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”


Like Jefferson, we recognize the universality of corruption, its inevitability in every regime. Yet the standards and morals existing in any society affect the perception and reality of corruption, even its very definition. Scholars have argued for centuries about the proper definition and nature of corruption. Those who wish to treat it narrowly see corruption as limited to its most outrageous manifestations: bribery, extortion, and graft. But most who have studied the subject believe corrupt politics extends far beyond these obvious and unquestionable sins, especially in the United States where the press and public tend to demand relative purity in the conduct of governmental and political affairs (even while often cynically expecting the worst from their officials).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the American people have been more perceptive than the insiders in sensing the deterioration in their politics. Public disgust, anger, and alienation have been steadily mounting, finding expression not just at the polls but in a wide array of grassroots sentiments, from the disturbing militia fringe groups to the broadly based term-limits movement. But neither militias nor term limits will correct the deep-seated defects of American politics, in part because these alleged antidotes attack the symptoms rather than the causes of the country’s maladies.

A review of the history of, and the literature about, corruption … yields several conclusions [about corruption] and hidden backrooms of American politics:

The “Principles” of Corruption

1. Corruption has no ideology, no partisan coloration. Throughout human history, corruption has been a constant, occurring to varying degrees in every kind of nation-state government, and society. As we will show, both Democrats and Republicans participate in corrupt practices, some of them widespread. Given the nature of competitive politics, when one side adopts a corrupt activity, succeeds at it, and gets away with it, the technique is legitimized and rationalized for use by the other side. Corruption can become so accepted that it is simply a “custom” of politics, often unquestioned by candidates, officeholders, or occasionally even by the press. Illegal activities in New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley machine, and Maryland contractors’ payoff system for Governors Spiro Agnew (Republican) and Marvin Mandel (Democrat) are but three prominent examples. Another application of this unprincipled principle is that a change of power from one party to another may simply involve a change in machines, with no decrease in the level of corruption. (“Meet the new boss,” sang an old rock group, “same as the old boss.”) Some of the current practices of incumbent congressmen and the political consulting industry … demonstrate other instances of ingrained, corrupt custom.

2. While corruption is inevitable and a constant, its precise manifestations are ever changing. [O]utright bribery was once the preferred modus operandi of corruption in America, and a lengthy line of scandals can be traced to it. Credit Mobilier, Teapot Dome, Abscam (a late 1970s law enforcement sting operation in which a phony “Arab sheik” gave some congressmen money in exchange for their official help), and a hundred major embarrassments over the centuries in New Jersey, Louisiana, West Virginia, and sister states. Similarly, elections were often stolen as a matter of course, and appeals to bigotry and racism were standard on the campaign trail, especially in the South. [S]ome of these corrupt methods, and certain strains (such as election fraud) … may be poised for a comeback. But none of these practices is as widespread today as fifty or a hundred years ago. Instead, new ways and means of corruption have been found, many of them designed to fit loopholes in the election laws or adapted to the dazzling new technologies of election campaigns.

3. Corruption flourishes in secrecy and wherever the people and the press tolerate it. Cockroaches and dirty campaigners love and live in the dark shadows. When their activities are undisclosed, the corrupters go about their business unimpeded. When the news media decline to explore and investigate suspicious practices, they fail in their most basic responsibilities. When the electorate learns of such practices via the press or other means and tolerates corruption (if only through inaction such as neglecting to punish the perpetrators at the polls), the voters contribute to an environment that nurtures corruption.

4. A system of government or politics can be at least as corrupting as human nature itself. We have studied politicians in close proximity for years, and as much as it may disappoint the cynics, we have not found politicians to be venal as a class. While there are a number of individual exceptions, most professional politicians, especially those already in public office, want to do good or seek to do the right thing, if doing good is an option that does not result in their political demise. However, if the “normal and customary” practices of campaigning engaged in both parties are seedy, and if a candidate believes “everybody’s doing it, and if I don’t do it, I may lose,” then most politicians will suspend their ethical codes. They will willingly accept a distasteful means that ensures what they regard as the good and essential end of their continued power. In other words, otherwise ethical people are put at a disadvantage by a corrupting system and almost forced to do unto others as they are being done to. Strict ethicists will correctly argue that the truly honorable person would not stoop to conquer, whatever the provocation. Yet reasonable reformers must keep in mind that the professional politician has a “power gene” in his or her genetic code that overrides all usual inhibitions to achieve victory or maintain power–and genetic engineering, however advanced it may become, will never be able to change that reality.

5. Any crusade to eradicate corruption is naive and doomed to failure, but corruption can be controlled and limited. The political mind is ingenious and the stakes high, and … given our First Amendment freedoms of speech and association in the United States, there can never be an airtight statutory solution to [political corruption]. In fact, as the Corrupt Practices Act and the Federal Election Campaign Act show, almost every attempt to revise and “improve” the election laws is guaranteed to create new, unforeseen loopholes that will be exploited in time, bringing discredit upon those very same high-minded reforms. Instead, sunshine is the most powerful disinfectant for corruption, and the exposure can force corrupt custom to change by turning the socially or politically acceptable into the unacceptable, utilizing the awesome power of public opinion.