Learning From History How to Curb Corruption

What will it take to get Americans to do something about corruption? I mean the deep corruption of politics and policy that is taking shape within the 2016 presidential election campaign. Candidates in both major parties, along with their devoted Super PACs and non-profits, are quietly but relentlessly asking for contributions from wealthy donors--donors who know they will gain significant clout within the government if their contender wins.

Not just the presidency but every level of government is tainted by the insidious quest for campaign contributions, by lobbyists who bundle money for candidates and then guide the policy decisions of elected officials, by the revolving door between public office and lucrative private employment, and, through all these means and more, by the disproportionate impact of wealthy individuals and interests upon government. What can be done to stop it?

American history offers an unmistakable answer: Political corruption will be beaten only by a large and well-led movement of people who believe passionately that corruption is preventing the nation from confronting the most urgent and consequential problems of our time. Problems like global warming, economic inequality, and our national epidemic of deadly gunfire.

Millions of Americans know that these issues present fateful challenges for the future. Millions recognize, as well, that wealthy individuals and organizations have far too much political sway. To date, however, these convictions--about the most direful public policy questions, on the one hand, and massive corruption, on the other--are largely separate, parallel at best, regrettably unconnected to one another. They must be conjoined unequivocally and confronted simultaneously. Achieving that will not be easy.

This situation should be familiar to students of history. Engaged citizens of every generation have struggled to try to get Americans to pay attention to corruption. From the pamphleteers of the American Revolution to the muckrakers of the Progressive Era to the contemporary followers of Common Cause, avowed opponents of corruption have done their best to awaken people against it and to win support for reform. Sometimes the enemies of corruption succeeded, but just as often they failed to keep pace with the onslaught of concentrated wealth. That is exactly our plight today.

So what can we learn from the historic occasions when Americans actually made headway fighting corruption? We learn that anti-corruption movements reached their peaks of effectiveness when talented leaders showed explicitly how political wrongdoing was causing, or worsening, economic and social problems that profoundly harmed and troubled the citizenry.

American Revolutionaries of the 1770s condemned the corrupt conspiracy of King and Parliament for new and oppressive British policies of trade and taxation. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson and his supporters unleashed accusations of corruption against monster banks whose power and privilege thwarted opportunity for ordinary farmers and workers. A generation later, Northerners who opposed slavery's westward expansion denounced the slave power conspiracy's corrupt control of the national government. As the twentieth century dawned, Progressive reformers assailed the corrupt alliance of party bosses and wealthy "trusts" that blocked solutions to the ills of industrialization, such as child labor, factory deaths, and diseased meat.

In each of these eras, agents of change--from John Adams to Andrew Jackson to Ida Tarbell and Theodore Roosevelt--effectively yoked contempt for political corruption to the most compelling public issues of the day. These leaders courageously risked their own political and social standing in order to proclaim loudly and clearly: This corruption must stop! They exposed greedy men and interests who were exploiting their own political power to cause the problems and to stave off remedies. They drew creatively upon solutions that were already in the air, and fashioned new ones in the heat of the moment, all designed both to address the nation's gravest difficulties and cure corruption.

Our own age is not so different from these earlier eras of dramatic change. Today, just as before, the political influence of wealthy individuals and organizations stands corruptly in the way of addressing our most serious challenges.

Billionaires who believe their economic interests would be harmed by public policies restricting the use of fossil fuels are spending boundless dollars to support candidates who deny or downplay global warming and oppose laws to mitigate it. Wall Street financiers, trying to forestall further regulation of their industry--or, better still, to dial it back--are generously assisting candidates in both parties who promise governmental kindliness toward the banks. The pro-gun lobby, backed by tens of millions of dollars for political candidates, has virtually shut down meaningful discussion of firearms control.

This is the current face of political corruption: People and organizations spend vast sums of money to elect officials who elevate the selfish interests of their benefactors above the public interest--with potentially fateful consequences for the nation and the world.

Learning from history, brave political leaders should entwine remedies for the most urgent problems we face with attacks on corruption, thus enabling each to draw strength from the other. Pick a problem, propose a solution, call out the corrupt malefactors who block its pathway, and appeal to the people. Opinion polls suggest that Americans would gratefully welcome this approach: They recognize the seriousness of the issues and they hate the corruption.

It is time for a new, 21st century conversation about corruption. There is no more evocative word in the democratic lexicon, not even liberty, and the frank use of it can once again provide passion and direction for addressing ills that currently seem incurable.

Americans are heirs to a long tradition of fighting to abolish political practices that stand corruptly in the way of solutions to the country's most serious problems. The place to start is by electing a president who boldly connects the dots between failed public policies and the deep corruption of politics by money--and who promises to take action against both.