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What Counts as Corruption?

In "You Vote, They Decide," now available on the homepage, we comment on the perverse logic behind two recent Supreme Court decisions, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United. Writing for the majority in Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that the rich campaign donor's "access to and influence over elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.” This is, we think, both misleading and remarkably blasé.

The first of these two sentences involves a point of semantics—but an important one: Kennedy’s formulation essentially reduces the meaning of “corruption” to bribery. But corruption comes in many flavors. Sometimes it consists in a donor’s not having to ask elected officials for favors because he or she is confident they will know, without being told, how to express their gratitude appropriately. Ingrates rarely get reelected. As for the electorate’s “losing faith in democracy,” if that means overthrowing the government, Kennedy is probably right not to worry. But people are less likely to vote if they believe that whoever is elected to represent them will end up ignoring their interests.[...] In his dissent from the majority in McCutcheon, Justice Stephen G. Breyer observed that “where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

And the facts appear to confirm that money now calls the tune in Washington. In an article published last year in the Columbia Law Review, Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos concluded that there is “near consensus in the empirical literature that politicians’ positions more accurately reflect the views of their donors than those of their constituents.” Meanwhile, two political scientists—Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page—have compared two decades’ worth of legislation with public-opinion surveys and discovered that in the United States “the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

Read the whole editorial here.

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