Wednesday, July 17, 2013

You Keep Using That Word...

According to Slate, three out of four Americans consider our political parties to be corrupt. This is based on a report by Transparency International. Indeed, the parties appear to be more corrupt by this metric than any other governing institution. Are they?
As Andrew Scott Waugh (via Facebook) notes, this claim rests on two very controversial definitions: parties and corruption. Arguably, this blog has spent over a year struggling with the definition of a political party. (See here and here for examples.) This is an unsettled topic among political scientists, and it is not at all clear what the respondents in the survey are thinking when asked about parties. Quite possibly, they are thinking about the party in government (folks like Obama, Reid, and Pelosi for the Democrats, and maybe Boehner or Romney for the Republicans), but they could also be thinking about people like Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, or they could be thinking about their annoying Republican/Democratic aunt/uncle they argued with last Thanksgiving. They're probably not thinking about the respective chairs of the DNC and the RNC (can you name them?), but who knows?

But if parties are a murky concept, corruption has to be even murkier. Traditional definitions of corruption usually focus on dishonest actions performed for personal (usually financial) gains. Is that what Americans mean when they say that parties are corrupt? Do they think that Senate Republicans have been filibustering presidential nominees for financial rewards? Are Democrats pushing handgun regulations because they're on the take? Do they think that the parties are being dishonest about their disagreements?

I would suggest that the label "corrupt" does not mean here what it's usually taken to mean. Rather, respondents are simply saying that they don't like parties. This isn't new, and it isn't unique to the U.S. (Slate notes that parties were rated the most corrupt institution in two-fifths of the countries included in the study.) Parties are typically -- fairly or unfairly -- seen as the source of divisions in our society rather than the articulation of them, and there is no shortage of journalists and politicians who suggest that without parties, we'd be able to govern our nation effectively and get along with each other. All this means is that if you work for a party, you should expect to be reviled, but you're not likely to face corruption charges for it.

17 comments:

  1. I agree that these vague statements about corruption and parties don't mean much, other than people are frustrated with American politics. But if political parties are coalitions of special interest groups that get people elected who will implement policies that benefit them, it seems that they, by definition, corrupt the government.

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    1. Todd, your definition of corruption would seem to encapsulate all of representative democracy. Is there any way for a group to work for the election of people it likes without falling under your concept of corruption?

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    2. There is: www.localelectors.org. The site is currently in hibernation and somewhat dated as I'm working on a book. In the future it will be rebranded as "Organized Democracy." Some articles are also at www.huffingtonpost.com/todd-phillips

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  2. "coalitions of special interest groups that get people elected who will implement policies that benefit them" -- actually, I think that's the definition of democracy.

    The only difference is whether "special interest groups" necessarily excludes some people. Therein lies the challenge of republican democracy.

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  3. "coalitions of special interest groups that get people elected who will implement policies that benefit them" -- actually, I think that's the definition of democracy.

    The only difference is whether "special interest groups" necessarily excludes some people. Therein lies the challenge of republican democracy.

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    1. It's pretty sad if our definition of democracy inevitably turns out to mean it is corrupt. Sounds to me like there is a serious problem with how our democracy is designed.

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    2. Honestly, I think the problem is more in our understanding of corruption. I can't see why people trying to get other people elected or advocating their views to their representatives should be seen as improper or illegal. Indeed, it should be encouraged.

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    3. When you put it that way there is nothing improper about it. But thanks to the logic of collective action tiny minority groups exploit the general public on an enormous number of issues. The will of the unorganized, disconnected, uninformed majority is never and can never be considered the way things currently exist. I don't think that is democracy at all. But I think it can be otherwise if we think of democracy as an organization, which it currently is not.

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    4. Todd, perhaps you could clarify your statement. Which values of the, to use your words, "unorganized, disconnected, uniformed majority" are homogeneous enough to become policy? If such values exist, how can they be identified from a demographic unwilling or unable to organize? If such values do not exist, how do we choose policies without excluding the preferences of a great many majority members?

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    5. Preston, absolutely nothing can be identified from the unorganized, disconnected, uniformed majority because they are just that. That's the problem. Our system of democracy is based on the assumption that the unorganized, disconnected, uniformed majority can somehow function and govern. Political parties have arisen to fill the gap, and their values are all that exist. The solution I identify in the link above is for the people to delegate their political responsibility to a hierarchy of connected representatives who they can hold accountable. This makes sense because accountability is all that matters. Casting binary votes for candidates that the vast majority of people can't communicate with accomplishes nothing and makes individuals powerless. The values of the people could then be transmitted to the government via the hierarchy of connected representatives that they can hold accountable.

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    6. A "hierarchy of connected representatives" who can be held accountable at the ballot? Um, that sounds like a party.

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    7. In my view parties formed because of the enormous numerical gap between citizens and candidates/representatives. A citizen’s vote is only token participation—interest groups get involved in politics and form parties to control the government because citizens can't effectively participate.
      I'm talking about a different paradigm. Citizens can only have 2-way communication with and hold accountable people who they are close to. Thus citizens must be organized into small groups, each with their own representative—a community representative—that they can make an informed voting decision about, communicate on an ongoing basis with, and hold accountable after the election. These community representatives would also be arranged in small groups and together they would elect representatives at the next level—possibly local officials. Local officials would be part of small groups who would elect representatives at the next level (possibly state & congressional). State representatives would elect the governor and congress would elect the president. This would form a hierarchy of connected representatives—an organization.
      Only in a “democracy” do people try to collectively achieve something (govern themselves) and yet are unorganized. Businesses, armies, churches are all successful because they are organized hierarchically. This is why democracies are broken.

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  4. While campaign finance is corrupt and political parties by association with the campaign finance system are tarred with that, political party money is really some of the cleanest money there is in the system.

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  5. The thing that makes political parties less corrupt is the coalition word. They work to obtain cooperation of coalitions which, even if they are not majorities are relatively broad based, while "special interest" politics focuses on securing political advantage for tiny minorities without building broad based coalitions.

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  6. To me, corruption denotes out-of-control lobbying and out-of-control campaign financing: senators spending four hours a day fundraising, ALEC writing model legislation that benefits corporate interests and gets enacted in 20-30 states, the banking industry gutting Glass-Steagall over the course of 20 years. Relatively little of the corruption may be quid pro quo I'll-give-you-this-you-vote-for-that, but my perception -- shared in some way, I suspect, by many Americans -- is that corporate interests exert far too much control over the legislative process. If I were to agree in a poll that "the parties are corrupt," I would mean that elected officials of both parties are unduly influenced by big-money contributions and lobbying.

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  7. I agree with ASP. Perhaps the taint in political corruption is less a question of definition than degree.

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