It is taken as a truism , by the media, pundits, and lay people alike, that the U.S. political system is overflowing with corruption, and that politicians are lining their pockets with impunity. But has anyone actually tried to substantiate these claims beyond just rhetoric? I have found to the contrary that:
1. Corruption and incompetence are often conflated. What is often labeled as corruption may just be incompetence. Corruption would seem to simply that one derives some personal gain, usually monetary.
A wiki article gives a huge list of scandals, but a lot of them seem more like incompetence, for example regarding David Petraeus:
David Petraeus (I) resigned as Director of the CIA on November 9, 2012, having pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified materials, after admitting to giving them to his biographer with whom he was having a sexual relationship. He was given two years’ probation and fined $100,000. See Petraeus scandal (2012)
It’s not like he personally financially benefited from this.
3. Corruption seldom goes undetected and unpunished, even for small monetary amounts, contrary to the common notion that politicians are ‘getting away with impunity’ or are ‘reaping millions of dollars’ of ill-gotten gains. Everything is so scrutinized these days, especially compared to the rest of the world. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu’s travel expenses scandal was a big deal at the time, and this was in 1992 (before social media) and the amount of money was pretty small, about $50,000-$90,000 or so. I think insider trading is possible concern though, although that too has gotten considerable scrutiny in the media. It’s not like it’s going undetected (there is a Wiki about it).
Although some absconded with far more. For example, “Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) US Representative pleaded guilty to one felony count of fraud for using $750,000 of campaign money to buy personal items such as stuffed animals, elk heads and fur capes.” He served 2 years for the fraud, so it’s not like it went unpunished or unreported, and his career was effectively ruined.
Even for alleged congregational insider trading, the amount of money is small, somewhere in the $40-150k range (even random people on Reddit’s Wall Street Bets not uncommonly trade as much or more), which suggests the trades may have been coincidental instead of deliberately timed. It’s not like they were aggressively buying call or put options ahead of news, which would be an automatic red-flag for insider trading.
That’s not to say such indiscretions have gone unpunished. For example, from the aforementioned Wiki link, Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control, “was forced to resign on January 31, 2018, after it was discovered that she bought stock in tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death in the US, creating a conflict of interest.”
Some examples are quite laughable. For example, “Tom Garrett (R-VA) US Representative from Virginia’s 5th District, was accused by four of his staff of using them for personal chores such as walking his dog and driving his kids. An investigation was begun, after which Garrett suddenly announced he was an alcoholic and would not seek re-election. (2018)” His ‘crime’ was having his staff do some simple chores, and that was enough to force his resignation.
The penalties can be quite stiff. In 2011, former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for wire fraud and other charges, which was commuted to time served by President Donald Trump on by February 18, 2020 (but no pardon of Julian Assange, of course).
4. Compared to much of the rest of the developed and developing world, the U.S. has possibly less corruption, and much smaller scale corruption. See for example, all the political scandals in Brazil, Italy, Spain, and Turkey, as well as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which disabuses the left-wing notion of Germany being America’s moral superiors.
According to world surveys, the U.S. ranks low for corruption:
Corruption is almost a part of daily life in Brazil that everyone has become sorta inured to it, yet decades later, long after anyone stopped caring or remembers, Watergate, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Iran Contra scandal, and the Teapot Dome scandal are still a big deal in America and talked about, to give an idea of the rarity of huge scandals, at least compared to the rest of the world.
5. It’s not so much that there is more corruption in America, but that the general public and the media have less tolerance for corruption, or have unrealistic expectations of how much corruption there should be, so what little corruption gets through, tends to be a much bigger deal than it would be elsewhere and is amplified by social media and the mainstream media. There is this false idealization, created by the media, pop culture, and the public education system, that the U.S. government is supposed to be this paragon of morality and ethics, and that the ‘good guys’ and justice must always prevail.
6. Partisan politics, increased partisanship and division, and the forever-raging culture wars means that ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ alike, to score points against their respective opponents, are inclined to scourer for any shred of evidence of corruption to pin to their opponents. Look how hard the left tried in 2016-2019 regarding ‘Russiagate’, the FBI, and Trump’s alleged cover-up of casino losses and tax avoidance, yet in spite of their best efforts Trump would still get 10 million more votes in 2020 compared to 2016. Same for the Clinton-Lewisnskly scandal, which was amplified by the media even though the general public did not care that much (Clinton’s approval ratings actually rose during the scandal).
What about the mainstream media ‘covering’ for corrupt politicians or ignoring corruption? I used to believe this was a problem, but not anymore. I can understand the rationale of non-profit media covering for Biden, Fauci, or whoever, or selectively ignoring stories that make certain individuals or institutions look bad, but not for-profit media. Look how the Lewinsky Scandal, almost overnight, turned the Drudge Report from an otherwise obscure Beltway ‘insider’ newsletter to one of the most most popular news destinations. Seeing what happened with the Drudge Report, what privately-owned media company would willingly forfeit millions of dollars of potential ad revenue and traffic from a scandal, in order to appease some septuagenarian who doesn’t even care one way or another. Recently the NYTs added John McWhorter as a columnist, showing how even the left-wing media will not pass on the opportunity to dunk on the ‘woke’ if it’s financially expedient and of interest to some readers. The mainstream media has also published plenty of negative articles about Biden and rising inflation.
I think however foreign influence plays too much of a role in domestic politics. Almost two years later, in spite of intense scrutiny by the media, scientists, and outsiders, no one is any closer to understanding where Covid came from, except that ,broadly, it may have originated or had something to do with Wuhan , a lab, and possibly bats, which we knew from the beginning. It’s as if the whole thing has been stonewalled by politics.
Despite leaving office with no money, somehow Bill and Hillary Clinton have since amassed a combined personal fortune of $120 million, purportedly from speeches, books, and consulting. Same for Al Gore, who is also very wealthy. There seems to be something wrong with the picture in some way, that ‘public service’ has become so personally enriching.
That’s not to say corruption is not a problem, it is, but it should be put in context. Of course, there is the definite possibly that a lot of corruption in the U.S. goes unpunished or undetected, but the examples given would seem to suggest that politicians pay a heavy price when corruption is found, such as jail time, larges fines/claw-backs, and reputational and career damage even for seemingly small transgressions.