Dec. 9, 2019 – Donald J. Fraser has spent a lifetime working in a variety of capacities in government. Fraser holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy and administration and currently teaches history through US Davis’s Osher Center. In 2016 he released The Emergence of One American Nation. His new book, The Growth and Collapse of One American Nation, will be published in early 2020 and cover the period from the 1790’s to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Cynicism is to democratic politics what rust is to motor vehicles. Both are corrosive if left unchecked. Rust will destroy a vehicle, and cynicism, if it becomes endemic, will ultimately destroy democracy. 

This thought struck me after some recent conversations with a few friends and acquaintances about the possible impeachment of President Trump. The cynical view of the process is that all politicians are corrupt in one way or another; they act based on self-interest and not in the public interest. In this view, Trump is no different; he is just doing what politicians do. This type of public cynicism may very well be the greatest impediment that Democrats face during the impeachment process. As David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, “it’s a lot harder to do impeachment in an age of cynicism, exhaustion and distrust” especially when Trump’s actions are viewed by many as “the kind of corruption that politicians of all stripes have been doing all along.”

Countering this level of cynicism won’t be easy. First, we need to acknowledge that corruption has been allowed to seep into our system by reviewing some examples of recent corruption. Second, we should see what the founders intended, and how far we have strayed from their views of corruption. 

Part of the problem of educating the public on Trump’s abuse of power is that our political system, including our own Supreme Court, has come to accept a degree of corruption. The revolving door between Congress and lobbyist is well known. The infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of fraud in 2005, once said that after he dangled a job offer in front of a politician that “we owned him.” Members of Congress spend an inordinate amount of time raising money for their reelection. Former Senator Tom Daschle reports that senators spend two-thirds of their time fund raising in the years immediately preceding their reelection campaigns. “Members of Congress spend too much time raising money and not enough time doing their job,” according to former representative David Jolly. Good people are discouraged from running for federal office due to the money chase, which has led to ever increasing numbers of millionaires and billionaires seeking office. This occurs in both parties. In the Democratic Party, two mega-rich men have joined the field in pursuit of the presidential nomination. Thus, it isn’t that the cynics are completely wrong, but rather that their viewpoint lacks any historical context or subtlety in distinguishing minor acts of corruption from those that threaten our democracy. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to see what our founders thought about corruption. They were steeped in both classical republicanism and liberalism and understood the challenges of forming a government based on consent that was protected from corruption. Republicanism taught them that leaders as well as the public needed to act with civic virtue, placing the public good above their own self-interest. In their view, any actions that violated the public trust were considered corrupt. The founding generation was hyper vigilant against perceived acts of public corruption. That was why they included a provision in the Constitution restricting the acceptance of gifts or emoluments from foreign governments without the permission of Congress. “Gifts play a potentially dangerous role in both judicial and democratic practice,” legal scholar Zephyr Teachout wrote in her book Corruption in America. “They can create obligations to private parties that shape judgment and outcomes.” Because we still fear the impact that gifts will have on decision making, many any states have instituted ethics laws that ban altogether or require the disclosure of gifts to government officials.

The founders also subscribed to the theory of classical liberalism, which placed the liberty of the individual at the center of a good society. It has always been true that people act in their own self-interest. Part of the challenge in forming a government was to balance the individual’s pursuit of self-interest with the need for laws and policies designed to promote the broader public interest. Historian Jack Rakove argues that James Madison, for example, judged political decisions by “asking whether they satisfied both the public good and private rights.” In order to control power and corruption, multiple mechanisms were considered necessary. The founders placed constitutional restraints on office holders by designing three branches of government and a system where each branch could serve as a check on the other. “The accumulation of all powers…in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” Madison wrote in Federalist 47. Yet Madison also assumed that ancillary means would be needed to check power. One of these would occur naturally by playing ambitious politicians off against each other. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he famously wrote in Federalist 51. It would not take long for Madison’s vision of ambitious politicians checking each other. Soon after formation of the new government under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton’s ambition to form a national bank was met by opposition from none other than Madison, who thought the bank was unconstitutional. While Hamilton eventually succeeded with legislation to form the bank, and Washington signed the bill, debates over the constitutionality of actions by ambitious politicians have continued throughout American history. Madison also wanted to encourage the election of “men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters,” which would occur in a larger republic. Such men were thought by the founders to be able to act in a disinterested manner, a term that was “used as a synonym for the classic conception of civic virtue,” historian Gordon Wood writes, as a person “not influenced by private profit.”

In our modern world, we seem to have gotten away from such restraints and have allowed private interests to have an undue influence on elected officials. We hear the refrain of those that are frustrated with corruption across the political spectrum. The appeal of Trump to drain the swamp is matched by politicians on the left, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who rage against the influence of the wealthy and large corporations. Perhaps the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 represents the low point for laws against corruption. In the decision, the Court overturned all limitations on independent campaign spending by corporations, unions and the wealthy. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, argued that only bribery was corruption. “Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” He went on to find that “the fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt.” The outcome was predictable. Our politics have increasingly become flooded with spending by independent groups and dark money donors. The website shows that such funding has tripled in the years since Citizens United. Former President Barack Obama warned about the dangers of the decision in his State of the Union message in 2010. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities,” Obama said.

Incidents of  minor corruption continue to occur. Hunter Biden traded on his father’s name and position as vice president when he took  a position on the board of a Ukrainian company. Even though it was not illegal, nor is there any evidence that former Vice President Biden did anything wrong in calling out corruption in Ukraine, it nevertheless smacked of impropriety.  And while this type of petty corruption occurs all too often, it pales in comparison to a president of the United States who abuses the power of his office in order to elicit dirt on a political opponent. It has become clear from the partial transcript of the president’s phone call along with recent testimony in the House that Trump was engaged in a shakedown of Ukrainian President Zelensky, withholding military aid to that country and a White House meeting unless he got what he wanted. 

Thus there’s little wonder  that cynicism is on the rise, and that we need to begin to take actions to control the corrupt impact that money and favors are having on our political system. Still, there is something wholly different about Donald Trump’s actions than those of other presidents who have exceeded their power. In my next essay, I will explore those differences.  

Republished from the History News Network: