The Corruption of American Politics

Elizabeth Drew has written a powerful expose of the deplorable state of American politics in The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why. She details the decline in ethical standards and political leadership in America and the corruption of the campaign financing system. The comprehensive law enacted in 1974 following the Watergate scandal placed stringent limits on contributions to candidates (“hard money”), but left many loopholes (“soft money”). Since then, both parties have escalated spending and been aggressive in raising “soft money.” Increasing demands for fundraising now force politicians to beg for donations from many contributors and to look for “soft” money. Reforms of the 1970’s have failed completely. Other attempts at reform have also failed—the Senate McCain-Feingold bill in 1995 was killed by filibuster; the House Shays- Meehan passed in 1998 died due to a lack of support in the Senate.

Unprecedented access peddling by the Clinton White House in 1996 resulted in Congressional hearings on campaign corruption. Partisan fighting beset the hearings—the last thing either party wanted was an investigation of campaign fraud—and special interest groups, Republicans, and the Clinton White House brought the charade to a close.

Most posturing about campaign reform is hypocritical. It is good politics to support reform, but no one really wants it. There is reason for hope over the long run. Polls indicate that most Americans want reform, but are cynical about the ability of those in the system to change it. Corrupt officials must be embarrassed and public opinion mobilized to demand reform.