Corruption in the American Democracy

Jenn Marshall, Maroon-News Staff

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Michael Johnston is in the midst of his latest project, which focuses on political money, inequality and credibility of democracy. Johnston discussed the deeper corruption he is researching during a Brown Bag on Thursday, March 26, hosted by Democracy Matters. 

Democracy Matters is a national non-partisan organization started by Adonal Foyl ’97, a Colgate alumnus whose goal was to give everyone a voice in the American political system. The organization holds chapters like this one all over the country, and their slogan is “get big money out of politics.”

Johnston began his discussion by stating that his presentation is faith based, focused on tossing out ideas. He introduced the topic with the idea that corruption comes in varied forms in different societies. In our liberal democracy, it is “Influence Market Corruption,” which revolves around the use of wealth by private parties to infiltrate the public domain. Johnston states that one of the greatest areas of dispute comes from defining corruption.

Johnston posed the question “What is corruption?” He noted that when people think of corruption, quid pro quo and under the table dealings come to mind; however, Johnson argued that this is not the main form of corruption in America and that corruption should be framed in terms of inequality, justice and what is fair, rather than just in terms of material. 

He said that most people believe that money has corrupted politics but that the majority is actually spent legally. Johnston argued that corruption is not just an attribute of a particular person, but rather a collective state of being. He discussed how the essence of corruption is duplicitous exclusion from the democratic process and that it is more of a credibility problem, where the system loses its ability to inspire loyalty. This can be seen through laws that apply differently to the rich and the poor.

Johnston discussed how many people will say that inequality is the result of the free market, but there are all kinds of market economies. He said that markets cannot exist without public institution. Furthermore, Johnston argues that there is a lot more politics involved in “the free market” than people think. Public policy can enforce lousy tax codes and private privilege. The prison system is an example that Johnston gave of a legal institution that reinforces inequality. 

Another example he provided was that Medicare Part D made drugs produced outside of the United States ineligible for coverage, and the government cannot negotiate with suppliers to lower prices. Therefore, Johnston pointed out that corruption is not transgressive, it is wired into the system, disguised as legal policies people believe are good and will help.

The next issue Johnston tackled was what corruption does to democracy. According to him, people expect to have a role and a voice in America because it is supposed to be the land of the free, where anyone can make it no matter who you are. 

Johnston said that wealth undermines that idea because the more wealth that a person has, the more influence they have available to them. He suggested money is the way to attain opportunity in America, and opportunity is the key to success. Johnston points out that this inequality is far from the “American Dream” nonsense that once defined the country.

Johnston’s project consists of a complex bundle of concerns and intercorrelated ideas. He is still looking for a dependent variable. Johnston argued that most people realize that the system needs revision, and the question that he posed is how to open up the political system to more voices. The process of deepening the democracy is difficult when the system is already so defined by wealth. 

Johnston’s next step is a survey he is working on, which asks individuals questions about the political system and whether or not they believe they have a voice. He also plans on interviewing different working class ethnic groups to hear their opinions. 

In the fall, Johnston will have accumulated his research, and he hopes the project will culminate in a book. Johnston concluded that he has not yet figured out how to redeem America and that we have to keep waiting for the final chapter.

Many Colgate students turned out for the event, which was held in the Coop TV room. 

“[It was] good that [the lecture] was discussion based so we got to hear a lot of professor and student opinions,” sophomore Annie Conway said. 

Another student, junior Samantha Sloane, said that she attends as many of his lectures as she can because she admires Johnston and is very interested in the topic.

“I love how professors share their work in the middle of a project, rather than just their conclusion, and look for feedback. So students feel like we can actually contribute,” Sloane said.