In an interview with ProMarket, Sarah Chayes, author of the book On Corruption in America, discussed corruption in the US and how incoming administration is likely to stick to business as usual.
Months before millions of Americans even got to cast their votes, President Donald Trump predicted that the 2020 presidential election would be “the most corrupt election in the history of our country.” After the election was called for Joe Biden, without evidence of election interference, Trump stuck to this narrative. He insisted that the election was rigged, that it was stolen, that it was fraud. Thousands of people believed him and many of them showed up in Washington, DC on January 6th and, after a speech from Trump, stormed the Capitol.
But it didn’t take Trump—who capitalized on his status as an outsider both during the 2016 election and his presidency—to convince people that the US government was corrupt. They already believed so. A 2015 poll by Gallup found that 75 percent of Americans felt that corruption was widespread in the US government. A majority, at 69 percent, felt that most members of Congress were “focused on the needs of special interests” rather than those of their constituents.
Systemic corruption gives rise to extremist reactions like the events of January 6, according to Sarah Chayes, author of the book On Corruption in America. What does systemic corruption look like? And what would it take to fix it? To find out, ProMarket spoke with Chayes about corrupt networks in the US, the revolving doors between politics and business, and Biden’s cabinet choices.
[The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.]
Q: There is a line in your book about people revolting against a rigged system, which they could no longer tolerate. I was thinking about it on January 6, because Republicans believe the system is rigged against them and Democrats think the system is rigged to favor the Republicans.
What we’re getting wrong is that the system is not rigged in favor of one party or another. It’s rigged in favor of the super-rich, basically, and the super-rich span parties. So what’s very interesting is you have a kind of elite network at the top, that in largely bipartisan ways—not entirely, the masterminds of this rigging since the mid-1970s, but picking up steam in the 1980s, and especially the 1990s, have largely been Republican. However, Democrats have jumped in with both feet. You can look at [Bill] Clinton’s deregulation. I’m not trying to create a false equivalency here, but what I am saying is that the elite networks are fundamentally in lockstep about the basic rigging of the economic system, which is not quite the same as the political system, but it’s interlocked.
And then what they do on both sides is agitate the identity divide, to keep us regular people focused on “Oh, it’s the other”—be it the other political party, be it the other race, be it the other gender. It’s “the other” that is rigging the system against me and my people. So, that effectively decimates the only thing that could rein in these basically corrupt networks (which themselves are actually kind of welded across all these divides): a cross-cutting coalition that is bound and determined to rein them in. The problem is all the identity divides decimate that coalition or that consensus, if you will.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by corrupt networks?
Corruption in a healthy country exists, of course, but it’s a kind of aberration. It’s like an individual venal person with a couple of cohorts who does something like a kickback, or extorts a bribe. That happens everywhere. In a healthy society, these are isolated incidents that are capable of being and, in fact, are sanctioned by the law. It’s a regular feature.
When corruption becomes systemic—and I think it has in the United States, and it certainly has in a couple dozen countries around the world—what you’re actually talking about is not individual acts by individual venal people, but you’re talking about the operating system of networks. And these networks include members from sectors that we tend to keep divided in our minds, like the private and public sectors. We think of those as separate and, in fact, Americans will debate about which is worse for our health: the government or business? And what we’re not seeing is that these networks straddle that divide.
We sometimes talk about the revolving door between government and business, but that’s deceptive. Because once again, it’s suggesting that you’re talking about an individual who’s pushing a door between the two sectors. Instead, what you have is the deliberate placements by the network, or the deliberate inclusion within the network of people who are both government officials and business people. And these networks, obviously, don’t look the same in every country. They don’t look the same from one week to the next, I’m not talking about a formal structure with job descriptions, I’m talking about dynamic and adaptive, and often unspoken groupings of people.
This has real ramifications for how we understand corruption. Because in the United States, formally, and under law, corruption is a transactional thing. It’s an image of an individual taking public funds, an individual extorting a bribe, or working out a kickback arrangement or trading on insider information. It’s these direct quid pro quo type relationships that we sanction under law, and that therefore frames our understanding as a society of what corruption is.
But when corruption is the operating system of a network, those transactions are often deferred. They’re often three or four way. Like, I might do a favor for you. And then you help out somebody’s cousin, who then hires my daughter. So, that one-to-one criminal relationship is sort of refracted through the network. Or it can be deferred in time, or sometimes the favor is given way ahead of when anything reciprocal might be expected, and sometimes that reciprocation is never explicitly requested. Rather, the favor receiver just kind of knows that I owe you one. And when the opportunity arises sometime later for me to pay off what I owe you, I do it. So, there’s no clear temporal or even sometimes personal relationship between the quids and the quos. But nevertheless, that’s how the system is operating.
The other really important thing to bear in mind is: in this context, the role of people who are holding public office is, to some extent, to steer revenue streams toward network members in the private sector, or their own associates, to be returned often by employment or by speaking fees or what have you. But more importantly, their role is to bend—this is where the system rigging comes in— their real role is to rig the system in favor of the network as a whole. And so once again, it’s hard to quite pin down the quid pro quo.
Q: Do you think with Biden taking office, people will expect there to be less corruption in the government? After all, like you said, corruption isn’t really partisan. It’s not about Democrats, or Republicans.
I was trying to run an anti-corruption program in a foreign country when Biden was Vice President. At the time, he was one of the louder voices on corruption. He was pretty good. But let me just tell you that if when I was doing that, the Vice President’s son had been on the board of directors of [Burisma], forget it. I would just give up because that message is way louder than anything the US government might say. And corrupt people look at what countries do, not what they say.
There are different reasons why the Hunter Biden position on the Burisma board was absolutely unacceptable. And I don’t see why it’s off-limits for loyal Democrats to say: You know what, now that you’re in office, it would be helpful to use your moral authority to concede that. Say: “You know what this was wrong for a couple of reasons, we were trying to fight two wars and I was distracted by a lot of stuff and I didn’t take this as seriously as I should have. And here are some rules changes we could make that would curtail, or at least curb, this type of behavior in the future, and I think it’s wrong.”
The problem is, he’s already done revolving door out the wazoo. He’s already violated so many of the principles that I would have liked to have seen him champion. I’m not saying there’s gonna be no difference compared to Trump, of course. But, you have Big Dairy running the Agriculture Department. When you have BlackRock with all of these economic jobs, and you have Janet Yellen, who was accepting millions of dollars from Wall Street firms, the appearance of conflict of interest is overwhelming. And I think the actual conflict of interest is real. There’s a lot of psychological experimentation that demonstrates an unconscious—it’s a sort of upside to unconscious bias—it’s an unconscious gratitude. People unconsciously reciprocate favors that they’ve received. When you get a $800,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street bank. You feel indebted, even unconsciously.
Q: Do you think there are candidates for these jobs who wouldn’t have a conflict of interest?
The idea that the only competent people that we dispose of in the United States of America are people who suffer from conflicts of interest, I just can’t believe it. I think it takes an effort. It’s a kind of affirmative action. But instead of it being a race-focused or a gender-focused affirmative action, it’s a where does talent lie outside the usual suspects?
And I have to say, I find the degree of replication of the Obama administration that is happening now is both unfortunate and potentially dangerous. Because Trump was elected in 2016. This country did not vote for Obama 3 by putting Clinton in. Now, you can come up with all sorts of reasons why [Hillary] Clinton specifically was distasteful to people, but I just think that the idea that we turn the clock back to 2015 and we can kind of wake up and go back to normal and this nightmare never really happened is, frankly, childish fantasy.
Q: In your book, you mention that one way that corrupt networks hold on to power is by making things like public comment processes extremely complicated, so that regular people can’t participate. They make processes and systems confusing and frustrating. Do you think this could change anytime soon?
I don’t think it’s going to change. Let me put it this way: there’s a difference between democracy and expertocracy. And even the party that claims to be the most open to regular people is very proud of its “expertise.” That’s my issue with a lot of the debate about science today.
Two-thirds of the people in this country do not have a college education. So when you say “Science, science, science, facts, facts, facts,” in this very derogatory, moralistic kind of tone of voice, there is a class implication to this. Two-thirds of the people in this country don’t have a college education, because it’s too expensive. There is a contempt that goes with the expertocracy. And there is a sort of, frankly, an anti-democratic “just shut up and do what we tell you, because we know what’s best for you, because we’re the experts.” And I think that, particularly in the sort of professional classes that are not privy to the millions and the billions, that’s sort of what they cling to. So, these are the people who are paid a decent salary, a respectable salary. But the thing that gives them a sense of status is their expertise, their expert knowledge. Therefore, they have a kind of emotional tendency to keep the language complicated. That is the most innocent explanation I can give you. But there’s a power dynamic to it. Even people who are not actively trying to keep the network’s fat and happy, there’s certainly a power element.
The less innocent side is where there is a deliberate obfuscation going on. And I don’t see there to be much effort to untangle that.