Tag Archives: corruption

I Was So Wrong…

As I cleanse my email feed every morning , deleting multiple frantic requests for just $2/$5/$20 or whatever, I’m reminded about my original, oh-so-naive belief that small-dollar fundraising would improve governance by removing the influence of big-dollar donors…

Silly me.

I was thrilled when Howard Dean first demonstrated that the internet could be employed to encourage small donations.  When Obama raised enormous sums in small increments, I  thought the days of depending on political fat cats was over–and since no candidate could be “bought” for these small contributions, I counted this as a win for democracy.

Let’s just say it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.

Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. Unfortunately, however, this approach to fundraising produces different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall consulted the research–and reported on the gloomy conclusions that the research supports.

Increasing the share of campaign pledges from modest donors has long been a goal of campaign-finance reformers, but it turns out that small donors hold far more ideologically extreme views than those of the average voter.

In their 2022 paper, “Small Campaign Donors,” four economists — Laurent Bouton, Julia Cagé, Edgard Dewitte and Vincent Pons — document the striking increase in low-dollar ($200 or less) campaign contributions in recent years. (Very recently, in part because Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and in part because Joe Biden has not been able to raise voter enthusiasm, low-dollar contributions have declined, although they remain a crucial source of cash for candidates.)

Bouton and his colleagues found that the total number of individual donations grew from 5.2 million in 2006 to 195.0 million in 2020. Over the same period, the average size of contributions fell from $292.10 to $59.70.

Edsall also quoted a 2019 article, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization.” That article warned about the consequences of increasing dependence on small donations, due to the fact that low-dollar donors tend to be “considerably more ideologically extreme than the average American.”

This is one of the most robust empirical findings in the campaign-finance literature, though it is not widely known. The ideological profile for individual donors is bimodal, with most donors clumped at the “very liberal” or “very conservative” poles and many fewer donors in the center, while the ideological profile of other Americans is not bimodal and features strong centrist representation.

It turns out that rising dependency on small-dollar donors has been one of the major reasons we’ve seen a decline in the strength of political parties–and the inability of party leaders, especially but not exclusively in the GOP, to control their respective crazies.

Political parties have been steadily losing the power to shape the election process to super PACs, independent expenditure organizations and individual donors. This shift has proved, in turn, to be a major factor in driving polarization, as the newly ascendant sources of campaign contributions push politicians to extremes on the left and on the right.

Edsall writes that Citizens United “was a crucial factor in shaping the ideological commitments of elected officials and their challengers.” It ushered in our era of independent expenditures and of dark money, leaching power that used to be exercised by the political parties.

The small donors who contribute to Trump are also those who fund the looney-tunes.

Edsall reports that Marjorie Taylor Greene raised $12,546,634, with 68.32 percent coming from small donors; Matt Gaetz raised $6,384,832, of which 62.24 percent came from small donors; and Jim Jordan raised $13,975,653, of which 58.05 percent came from small donors. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and AOC appealed most to small donors (although I would note that Sanders and AOC are both sane and hard-working legislators–something that  certainly can’t be said about Greene, Gaetz and Jordan.)

Donations of $200 or less made up 69 percent of the individual contributions to Trump’s campaign.

And speaking of Citizens United, in its wake, spending by ideological and single-issue independent expenditure organizations grew from $21.8 million in 2006 to $66 million in 2016. During that same time-period, spending by political parties fell from 24 percent of the total to 16.2 percent, and the influence of dark money grew significantly.

There’s much more in Edsall’s column, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. The bottom line is that we now have a system that incentivizes extremism. Social media and the Internet enable lunatics to self-finance; they don’t worry that Fortune 500 companies will stop giving them money, because 30 percent of the population wants insanity and is willing to fund the politicians who give it to them.

I have no clue what we do about this, but a more politically savvy Supreme Court would help….

 

 

Tennessee, Clarence Thomas And The Corruption Of American Democracy

Question: What do Clarence Thomas and the Republican legislators in Tennessee have in common?  Answer: They both epitomize the corruption of American democracy–a corruption that has led to a precipitous decline in public confidence in America’s governing institutions.

Several media outlets have reported on recent polling from Gallup that shows trust in the judicial branch at record lows. Only 47 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the federal judiciary– a drop of 20 percentage points from two years earlier. When asked about the Supreme Court, it was worse:  58 percent disapproved of the high court’s performance.

Those numbers are unlikely to improve following the most recent disclosures about  Justice Thomas and his “dear friend” Harlan Crowe. The initial revelations about Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious trips were stunning enough, but the Justice’s argument that he hadn’t needed to report them since they were just “hospitality”–while unconvincing–left him some rhetorical wiggle-room.

The latest revelations don’t.

This time, Thomas directly received money from Crow — perhaps in excess of the market value of the Chatham County, Ga., properties that Crow purchased from Thomas and his kin. This is no longer about receiving “personal hospitality.” It’s about a financial transaction between Thomas and a GOP donor who has also subsidized his vacations.

There is no doubt that the sale of personal real estate to Crow should have been reported on the justice’s financial disclosure form for 2014, and there is no excuse for failing to do so. The most logical explanation is that Thomas, whose relationship with Crow had already been the subject of unflattering news reports, wanted to keep it from public view.

The linked article also notes  that Thomas has failed to report his wife’s considerable income from Rightwing organizations–although the law clearly requires  that income to be reported.

Inescapable bottom line: Clarence Thomas is corrupt, and his judicial decisions are compromised.

Then there is the emerging information about the Tennessee legislature–information that probably would not have been uncovered or widely disseminated had that body not over-reacted to a breach of House decorum by expelling two young Black Democrats.

Democracy Docket has taken a deeper dive into that gerrymandered legislature’s  disdain for representative democracy. Tennessee, like Indiana, has a Republican super-majority–courtesy of gerrymandering–that routinely acts to disempower state Democrats.

Some examples:


Tennessee’s Democratic cities have come under a coordinated attack from lawmakers. In March, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a law that forces the Nashville Metro Council to reduce its membership by half. Two lawsuits were filed challenging the law and on April 10, a Tennessee court temporarily blocked portions of the law while litigation continues.

After the expulsion of Pearson, GOP legislators threatened to withdraw funding from important projects in Memphis’ Shelby County if Pearson was reappointed.

In the latest round of redistricting, the Legislature divided Davidson County, home to Nashville, into three separate districts, dismantling the city’s Democratic-held seat. The lawmakers also approved state legislative districts that entrenched Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. (Notably, the recent expulsions were only possible because of GOP supermajority control.)

Tennessee denies voting rights to over 470,000 citizens with one of the strictest (and most complicated) felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States. The state disenfranchises 21% of its Black voting-age population, the highest percentage in the country.

Tennessee has restrictive voting laws, leading to a low democracy tally by the Movement Advancement Project. Instead of improving voting access, the Legislature’s priorities have included laws requiring state and local officials to consult with the legislative leadership before changing certain state election laws and prohibiting election offices from accepting any private grant for election administration.

And we wonder why Americans no longer trust our political institutions…why so many of us have moved from skepticism to cynicism.

Political trust is generally described as citizens’ confidence in their political institutions. As political scientists repeatedly warn, that trust is an important component and indicator of political legitimacy; its erosion is not something to be taken lightly.

As I used to tell my students, an enormous number of American laws depend upon voluntary compliance by citizens–everything from filing taxes to obeying traffic signals. The ability of the authorities to catch and punish scofflaws depends upon the fact that the rule-breakers are relatively few. When citizens no longer trust that those in power are following the rules, rising numbers of them will feel justified in breaking those rules as well.

And it’s all inter-related

A properly functioning Supreme Court would have outlawed the rampant gerrymandering that produced Tennessee’s –and other state’s–rogue legislature.

As NASA might put it: Houston, we have a problem.

 

Fish Rot From The Head

Americans who follow politics know that even critics of party A and Congressman B  are likely to defend their own Congressperson. (Sort of like the critics of public education who defend their own school–it’s always those others that are failing. Back in the day in Indianapolis, Republicans who detested Democrats nevertheless repeatedly voted for Andy Jacobs, Jr.)

In this blog, I tend to focus on national politics. That focus may implicitly suggest that the faults and foibles of the people we send to Washington or empower to govern the state are somehow different- from–and worse than–those of the political folks closer to home.

As the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Here in Indiana, I was recently made aware of a court case in Adams County, in which the Court invalidated an election for Union Township Trustee. The court found that Alice Weil, the Republican who won that election, was ineligible for public office due to the fact that she had previously been adjudicated a habitual offender. The court found that the Democratic candidate had  garnered the most votes awarded to eligible candidates; that person now holds the position.

The case generated little or no media coverage, and I think that’s very unfortunate, because it is yet another illustration of the way corruption at the top inevitably permeates an organization. Fish rot from the head, but the rot travels quickly to the rest of the body, and the wholesale deterioration of the GOP is a current, prime example.

It isn’t as if this candidate had fooled local party elders, ala George Santos.The Third District GOP Chair knew his candidate was ineligible–he was heard telling someone he’d have to “swap her out” if it was discovered.

Had the Third District Democrats not chosen to sue, Union Township would now have a convicted criminal as its Township Trustee. But the lawsuit cost the district Democrats six thousand dollars, which it is scrambling to cover. (The court declined to award costs–if there’s a generous reader out there, throw them some dollars!)

Third District residents (not just Democrats) have really suffered enough–their Congresscritter is Jim Banks, who now wants to be one of Indiana’s Senators.

In Washington, Banks was one of the founders of the (grotesquely misnamed) Freedom Caucus–the legislative caucus that includes such sterling defenders of the rule of law as Matt Gaetz, and deep thinkers like Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert. Banks recently told  a radio host that he wants to find a way to stop “young ladies” from hopping in a car” to get abortion care outside Indiana.

Hoosiers outside the Third District who may be unacquainted with Banks’ interesting approach to “freedom” were recently introduced to his Senate campaign through its attack on prior Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is rumored to be considering a run for that same Senate spot. The attack paints Daniels as “too liberal” for Hoosiers.

Please retrieve your jaw from the floor. Granted, Mitch Daniels was not one of the committed culture warriors so beloved by today’s GOP, but calling him liberal is…well, let’s just say it’s quite a stretch.

Banks is a “conservative” in the mold of Ron DeSantis. Think racist, homophobic and “anti-woke,” anti-immigrant, anti-choice, pro-privatization of education…on and on. (I put conservative in quotes, because calling  the radical, theocratic wing of today’s GOP “conservative” is deeply unfair to genuine conservatives.)

Interestingly, people in the Third District tell me that Banks used to be a “traditional Republican”–that once he was in Congress, he “lost his mind” and became steadily more radical and unreasonable. Assuming the accuracy of that description, it mirrors reports of other Republicans who have succumbed to the temptations of power and self-aggrandizement during the past several years.

When the people at the helm of a political party embrace lies Big and little, when the man to whom they pledge their loyalty is a grifter and a con artist, when the party abandons even the pretense of policy positions in favor of “hate your neighbor” culture war/identity politics–is it any wonder that the obedient “troops” follow suit?

Then there’s the saddest lesson of all: When there is no longer local media capable of rooting out local corruption, it doesn’t take long for the rot to travel downward.

 

 

The First Corruption Is Language

Jeffrey Isaacs, a distinguished professor of political science at IU Bloomington, had a very thought-provoking essay in Common Dreams.It was evidently triggered by the issuance of a Chinese State Council position papers asserting that China is a “democracy that works.” The paper argued that the “Chinese model” is superior to the “Western model,”–that it is more efficient, promotes solidarity, and is not “an ornament to be used for decoration.”

As Isaacs notes

Most readers of the piece will rightly focus on the manifest hypocrisies of the Chinese power elite and its intellectual supporters who justify terrible violations of human rights.

But this rhetorical appeal by authoritarians to the values of “democracy” is nothing new. It has antecedents in the official rhetorics of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian Communism—all of which claimed to represent a “higher form” of “folk democracy” or “proletarian democracy” or “people’s democracy.” In more recent times, Hugo Chavez presented himself as a proponent of an anti-imperialist “protagonistic democracy,” and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime, famously declared in 2014 that Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” pointing to Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as his models. And we must not forget, of course, that Vladimir Putin long extolled his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy” that placed national traditions above global commitments and regarded “human rights” as a “Western” abstraction.

As Isaacs goes on to discuss, the Chinese claim to be a democracy is just the most recent iteration of a longtime debate over what the term means.  “Democracy,” as he reminds us,  is a “complex and essentially contested” concept, and arguments  over the connections between liberalism and democracy have been central to modern politics.

But we don’t need to look to mid-20th century totalitarianism, or current-day anti-liberal authoritarians in China or Russia or Hungary, to see versions of this contestation. For it is taking place before our very eyes in the U.S., in the form of a Republican party that is deliberately assaulting core norms and institutions of liberal democracy and doing it in the name of . . . democracy itself.

In the essay, Isaacs highlights a critical and too-often overlooked element of America’s current political impasse: the misuse–the intentional corruption–of language in service of propaganda and power.

He reminds us that GOP “leaders” from Tucker Carlson to Mike Pence have made it their business to commune with Viktor Orban, and that Republican efforts to “Orbanify” U.S. politics don’t just adopt Orban’s authoritarian legal tactics–they also mimic his rhetorical ones.

Isaacs is quite right that when Trump and his MAGA supporters pontificate about “democracy,” they mean something quite different from  American liberal democracy.

They mean the popular sovereignty of “true Americans.” They do not mean by this universal adult suffrage, they mean voting restrictions designed to limit the participation of “undesirable” and “un-American” people. They do not mean by this a system based on robust debate and free and fair party competition. They mean a system that opposes “fake news” and “liberal science,” that privileges their own media and their own academics and their own partisan advantage, and regards any alternatives as “enemies of the people.”

This essay–well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety–reminded me of the following exchange from Alice in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Communication is difficult even when the participants to a conversation agree on the meanings of the words they are using. Tone, body language, professional and “hip” jargon can change the connotation of otherwise simple exchanges, even when no misdirection is intended. When language is is corrupted–when, in the words of Tallyrand, words are chosen “to conceal true thoughts”–we no longer have the critically-important ability to engage in productive conversation.

Language is what allowed humans to emerge from caves, to collaborate, to investigate, to create. It’s not only essential for intellectual and emotional expression, it’s the primary vehicle through which humans transmit culture, scientific knowledge and  world-views across generations, the way we link the past with the present.

When words no longer have objective content–when we lose the ability to understand what other people are really saying–the resulting chaos empowers the worst of us.

The Crowding-Out Effect

Tomorrow is the most important Election Day in my lifetime. Among other things, the results will tell me whether my longtime faith in the common sense and goodwill of my fellow Americans has been justified or misplaced.

Hopefully, after tomorrow, this blog can return to discussions of rational, albeit debatable, policy proposals, commentary on interesting research results, and occasional forays into legal disputes and political philosophy. Hopefully too, we will have occasion to use a phrase introduced by Gerald Ford: “our long national nightmare is over.”

One aspect of that “long national nightmare,” of course, is the incredible amount of destruction it will leave in its wake–regulations that must be reinstated, laws that must once again be enforced, corrupt people who must be held accountable, and a return to public health directed by medical scientists rather than politicians, among many other things.

The opposite of “nightmare” is a good night’s sleep, and if all goes well, we can once again look forward to days when we haven’t had to think about the President of the United States, followed by nights when we can once again sleep soundly because–whether we agree with administration policies or not– a sane and honorable person is in charge.

If there is one word I have heard over and over during this political season, it is “exhaustion.” Trump’s desperate need for constant attention, his bizarre tweet-storms, insults and various insanities have sucked the oxygen out of our public life. He has been in our faces, on our television screens, Facebook feeds and comedy routines. As several columnists have recently noted, he has crowded out so many activities that we would otherwise enjoy–books of fiction, works of art and music, conversations with friends that didn’t give rise to disappointment when we discovered their willingness to look the other way so long as their 401K stayed healthy…

Last Thursday, at the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about all the things we’ve lost.

After listing the “big” things–the lives lost to COVID, the children whose parents can’t be located, the people whose livelihoods have disappeared, and after acknowledging the greater significance of those losses, she speaks for so many of us:

When I think back, from my obviously privileged position, on the texture of daily life during the past four years, all the attention sucked up by this black hole of a president has been its own sort of loss. Every moment spent thinking about Trump is a moment that could have been spent contemplating, creating or appreciating something else. Trump is a narcissistic philistine, and he bent American culture toward him.

I’ve no doubt that great work was created over the past four years, but I missed much of it, because I was too busy staring in incredulous horror at my phone….

Conservatives love to jeer Democrats for being obsessed with Trump, for letting him live, as many put it, rent-free in our heads. It’s a cruel accusation, like setting someone’s house on fire and then laughing at them for staring at the flames. The outrage Trump sparks leaves less room for many other things — joy, creativity, reflection — but every bit of it is warranted. The problem is the president, not how his victims respond to him.

If the polls are right, if Biden wins convincingly, Americans will nevertheless be on pins and needles until January 20th. We won’t be out of the woods until this blot on our nation and our history is gone–and even then, we will be left with the alt-right haters and know-nothings who have spent the campaign brandishing guns, refusing to wear masks and cheering ugly pronouncements at Trump rallies– voters motivated by fear and grievance who want only to “own the libs.”

Buckle up. We’re about to see how this horror show ends.