Today is Primary Day in New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo is being challenged for the Democratic and Working Families party lines by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has just published a book on Corruption in America through Harvard University Press. Teachout's challenge to Cuomo, amid claims that the governor behaved corruptly by constraining a committee he created to investigate legislative corruption, has drawn considerable attention to her book. Her main argument appears to be that the Supreme Court today fails to take seriously the corrupting potential of money in politics by defining corruption too narrowly. The Roberts Court has ruled that large campaign donations do not by themselves corrupt recipients, on the understanding that "corruption" means an explicit quid-pro-quo exchange of money for policy. In other words, the Roberts majority will recognize corruption only if a politician can be proved to have solicited money, or had been promised money, in return for a specific vote on legislation.
As Teachout acknowledges, it is easier to presume corruption than to prove it, and much easier to make the charge during a campaign than to make it stick in court. But she remains convinced that corruption is a fact traceable to the role of money in politics and the inequality of influence that inevitably results as campaigns grow ever more dependent on money in our multimedia age.
So what is corruption in relation to campaign donations? Our first impression, almost certainly, is that money in politics corrupts a politician if it changes his or her mind. We would have no problem presuming corruption, even if a quid-pro-quo couldn't be proven, if a Democratic legislator with a "progressive" reputation started voting to abolish regulations on industry after receiving donations from the Koch brothers. Yet the Kochs are understood to reserve their donations primarily for Republicans, and Republicans, for the most part, are presumed to have an ideological affinity with the brothers already. Can the Kochs actually corrupt Republican conservatives or libertarians? You would need very specific proof even for suspicion, something like a pet project of interest or concern only to the brothers, as opposed to an overall ideological agenda with which ideological politicians are presumed already to agree -- some legislation with no apparent purpose but to make the Kochs money. Absent that, the Kochs' donations only sponsor candidates who already agree with them on principle and need the money to get elected, not persuaded.
The ideological polarization (or bipolar ideologization) of American politics arguably renders traditional concepts of political corruption obsolete, if ideologues are understood to be incapable of changing their minds on policy or principle. Could the Kochs possibly change Elizabeth Warren's (or Zephyr Teachout's) mind about anything? Or for the sake of balance, could George Soros (or whomever right-wingers see as the leftist moneyman of the moment) change Ted Cruz's mind? If anything, the hardening of ideology has only encouraged investments in politics by the wealthy, not because money changes more minds but because ideological politicians are safer investments than pragmatists or politicians with any pretense of objectivity.
Suppose a corrupting influence of money over politics could be proved. What would that mean? Presumably it would mean not just that a politician votes a certain way because he receives money from someone -- that's the influence -- but also that he votes in a way inconsistent with an objective or pragmatic understanding, whenever either is possible, of the national interest or the public good -- that's the corruption. The only reason to care about corruption is if corruption means that politicians will vote the wrong way. If you don't presume that some policy questions have right or wrong answers, or good or bad consequences, then anyone should be able to influence his representative with all the arguments or enticements at his disposal. Corruption is bad -- is corrupt -- if it closes a politician's mind, if it blinds him to the right thing to do or inspires him to knowingly reject it. Ever since the Founders rejected the idea that constituents could explicitly and bindingly instruct representatives how to vote, American politics presumes that representatives will legislate with open, objective minds. If ideology is the opposite of an open or objective mind, while it is also possible to know the "right thing to do" without reference to ideology, then ideology itself is the real corrupting element in politics, and money in politics is only gravy. Of course, it's even more impossible to ban ideology than it would be to ban corruption. You can only hope that ordinary Americans will recognize ideology as corrupt -- or, more likely, "crazy," -- and rise up against them like people rose up against Communist ideologues in Europe a generation ago. But despite persistent and increasing disgruntlement in the electorate that result seems no more likely than ever -- and if that lamentable state of affairs can be traced to money in politics, if money can be blamed for Americans thinking they can only ever choose between two lousy options, maybe that's where the real corruption is.