It’s cynicism that is corrupting politics

Widespread accusations of corruption in American business and politics are filling the gap left by the decline of genuine debate.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

It felt like a set-up. I was the only non-American in a panel of four discussing corruption at a public meeting organised by the New York Salon on Wednesday (1). My intention was to argue that the obsession with corruption was unhealthy and largely the result of the demise of genuine political debate. No doubt many would see me as an apologist for venal politicians and greedy corporations.

The idea of a ‘culture of corruption’ – used in the title of the meeting – was popularised by the Democrats to use against their Republican opponents (2). And it is true that many Republicans have been mired in scandal in recent years. For instance, Tom DeLay, the former leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, has recently decided to leave Congress following corruption allegations. Earlier this year Jack Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist, was jailed for fraud and conspiracy. Not that the Republicans are alone in being accused of corruption. In one recent example William Jefferson, a Democrat representative from Louisiana who is facing an FBI corruption investigation, earned the nickname ‘Cold Cash’ after $90,000 was discovered in his freezer.

Nor is the discussion of corruption limited to politics. Enron is probably the most prominent example of the corporate scandals that have engulfed America in recent years (3). High-profile pundits, too, spend much of their time accusing their opponents of dishonesty and hypocrisy. Popular books in America include Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies and the American Right, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them and Peter Schweizer’s Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy. Corruption has also played a large part in many recent movies, including Batman Begins, The Constant Gardener, Fun with Dick and Jane, and Syriana, as well as in documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Corporation.

Not that corruption is a uniquely American preoccupation. Substitute the term ‘sleaze’ for ‘culture of corruption’ and the British debate looks similar to the American one. It is hard to find a country which is not beset by corruption scandals. Anyone who doubts this should key the term into any international news website (4). If related terms are included – such as crony capitalism, graft, and governance – the number of hits is even greater.

It was in this context that the organisers of the New York Salon had decided to hold a public meeting on corruption. David Callahan, the research director of Demos and author of The Cheating Culture, was the closest to the mainstream view of corruption (5). Matthew Continetti, a 24-year-old neoconservative and author of The K Street Gang (named after a street in Washington DC where many lobbyists are based), argued that the problem of corruption was exaggerated, as did Robert Pollock of the Wall Street Journal. I stood out as the only one arguing that the key problem was not corruption but a lack of big ideas in contemporary politics. The venue was the concert hall in the venerable New York Society for Ethical Culture building at Central Park West (6).

For Callahan the problem of corruption in politics and business is a symptom of a wider cheating culture. He pointed to many other areas – including employees stealing from their employers, tax evasion and dishonestly in professional sports – where he said cheating was rife. In contrast, other more traditional sources of anxiety, such as street crime, had become less prevalent.

Callahan had a more developed theory to support his arguments than either of the neoconservative speakers. While he had a convincing explanation of why corruption has come to the fore as a contemporary preoccupation – even though I disagreed with his argument – it later turned out that the conservatives did not.

Callahan gave three reasons why he sees cheating as becoming more common. First, he pointed to widening inequality in what he called the ‘winner-takes-all society’. For him ‘this brings out the ethical worst in people’. Second, he pointed to widening insecurity, including a less extensive social safety net and burgeoning household debt. As a result the penalties for failure were steeper than before. Finally, he said that ‘the watchdogs are asleep’, including such regulatory agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In his view, such organisations lack the resources and often the will to tackle corruption. Callahan’s arguments made him the most popular speaker among the audience.

In contrast, Continetti argued that the idea of a culture of a corruption was exaggerated. He said that the term ‘culture’ implies that corruption was endemic, systemic and pervasive and that this was not the case in America. ‘We don’t have a culture of corruption – but we do have a climate of corruption in Washington DC’, he said. However, he said he was optimistic about the future. ‘Climates change, I think we can change this one.’ To me, though, his distinction between a climate and culture seemed like a tenuous one. He had conceded that corruption is a substantial problem in America.

Pollock of the Wall Street Journal said that the big business frauds in recent years, such as Enron and WorldCom, were no worse than previous frauds. In addition, ‘we already have institutions in place to effectively deter fraud for the most part’. He also pointed out that excessive regulation has enormous costs. The average large corporation has to spend 70,000 man-hours to ensure it complies with contemporary regulations.

Like Continetti he argued that the problem of corruption was exaggerated. ‘Probably the US today is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and less corrupt than at any time in its history.’ He pointed to Serpico, the 1973 movie starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop investigating corruption in the New York Police Department, as reflecting the problem of police on the take three decades ago.

My argument was that the mainstream understanding of political corruption got things upside down (7). Rather than the prevalence of corruption making people cynical about politics, the inability of politics to project a positive image fuelled an obsession with corruption. Whereas politics once centred on competing visions of how to organise society, today it has become a dull technical affair. Although there are often heated debates these tend to focus on narrow technical questions or schemes for regulating personal behaviour.

In fact, in the proper sense of the term, politics does not exist at present. The public has been sidelined from any discussion of how to organise society. People are treated as customers of state services or consumers of goods rather than active citizens who are capable of shaping their own future (8). Although the formal institutions of democracy still exist in America they are an empty shell without the active engagement of citizens in debates on big ideas.

The subsequent debate between the speakers and the audience was so disparate it is hard to summarise. There was some argument about whether corruption was more or less pervasive than in the past. Others distinguished between corruption in politics and business. I made the point that whatever the reality of actual corruption – and by its nature it is virtually impossible to measure – the sense of corruption was greater than ever before. Politicians and businessmen were viewed with near universal contempt whereas in the past, to use an overworked metaphor, they were divided into good and bad apples.

Another interesting exchange was between Continetti and myself. He countered my arguments by saying that, from his experience as a journalist based in Washington DC, he ‘sees a tremendous amount of debate’. Continetti said ‘I want to stick up for politicians because I think debate does exist’.

I gave climate change as an example of an area where the appearance of a substantial political debate is deceptive (9). Al Gore, a former American vice president, has received substantial coverage for An Inconvenient Truth, his documentary on global warming. Yet Gore goes to great lengths to emphasise that in his view climate change is a moral question rather than a political one (10). The discussion of how to react to global warming should, in his view, be bipartisan rather than partisan. The only solutions which he deems legitimate centre on how to reduce the human impact on the environment. He does not even leave open the possibility of other approaches to the question (11).

No doubt only a small minority of the audience accepted my argument that the lack of genuine political debate is the key problem to address. The pervasiveness of cynicism in contemporary society means that the idea of corruption, reflecting as it does a negative view of human potential, has considerable appeal. But the success of the New York Salon in pulling off a debate on such a difficult issue is surely a cause for hope.

Is There a ‘Culture of Corruption’ in Politics and Business? was organised by the New York Salon and took place on Wednesday 21 June. For more information about the NY Salon, visit its website here.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Read papers from the speakers at the meeting and related articles

(2) For example, see the official Democratic Party website for extensive discussion of Republican corruption

(3)See Sean Collins, Who’s afraid of Enron?, 30 May 2006.

(4)For example, try BBC News or Guardian websites.

(5) That is the American Demos think tank rather than the British organisation of the same name. See Demos

(6) New York Society for Ethical Culture

(7) For time reasons I did not discuss the debate on corruption on business. This can be understood in the context of growth scepticism discussed at length in Daniel Ben-Ami, Who’s afraid of economic growth?, 4 May 2006.

(8)For a perceptive study of the narrowing of politics in America see Matthew A Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg Downsizing Democracy, John Hopkins University Press 2002

(9) I am not referring here to the discussion of the science of global warming but to the lack of debate on how society can best manage the problem.

(10) For the film’s official website see: For a statement by Gore on climate change as a moral issue and the need for bipartisanship see: Al Gore sounds warming alert, 31 May 2006, NPR

(11) For an outline of different possible approaches see Joe Kaplinsky, Bring back the weathermen, 12 February 2004

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Topics Politics


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