The fact that Americans are corrupt is an ugly truth, but a truth to which even those who believe that they are not corrupt must man-up, metaphorically. This corruption is not the generic concept of taking graft in exchange for some political action, though voting to get a tax break qualifies—oh, and “free stuff” paid for by others does as well. It is the lack of civic virtu within Civic Humanist Political Philosophy that distinguishes American corruption. Civic virtu is attained only when citizens fully participate in the political process, but moreover do so for the greater good of the nation.
We certainly see the full extent of corruption, the total lack of civic virtu, in the wealthy who invest fortunes to avoid paying their fair share of the tax burden. We see it also in corporations that not only pay no taxes on phenomenal profits, but also receive phenomenal tax returns. We see it as well in so-called public servants, our politicians, who virtually grow wealthy on the public dole. In 2008 in example, the year in which the global economy tanked, our Republican Congress voted themselves a $4,700 pay raise to top off the $37,300 in pay increases they had voted for themselves since 1999. That’s a sweet 21.4% increase during a time when they were implementing tax reductions and pushing for spending cuts.
What is less clear is is the fundamental corruption within the electorate. It begins with voter apathy at a level unparalleled in western industrialized nations. Let’s take a look at three countries from 1948 to the present in comparison, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, beginning with Sweden. Since reaching a peak of 91.76 voter turnout in 1976, voter turnout began falling into decline to a low of 80.11%, in 2002, the lowest since its all-time low in 1958. In 2010 it rose again to 84.63%. The numbers in Denmark very nearly mirror those in Sweden, but those in Germany were a bit more than nominally lower. The peak turnout in Germany hit its high mark with 91.11% in 1976, and reached its nadir with only 70.78% in 2009.
From 1840 through 1908, the turnout for presidential elections in the United States reached its peak but ranged only between 65.2 to 81.8%, a good 10% below Germany’s current voter turnout record. Over the same period, 1948 to the present, voter turnout in the US ranged between a low of 49%, in 1996, to a high of 63.11%, in 1964, when Americans turned out to keep Goldwater out of office. That’s an average of a nearly 31% lower voter turnout than in Germany.
More shockingly still, the official statistics measure only the turnout among registered voters. The actual voter turnout for eligible voters ranges between 36.4% and 61.9%, a difference of nearly 40% lower voter turnout in Germany, and over 44% lower than Sweden. This is however not the most shocking statistic.
To this point, only the voter turnout for the Presidential elections has been addressed. During what are called off-year elections, in which only members of Congress are elected, turnout among eligible voters typically drops to the upper 30% range. The critical implications and depth of corruption in this fact cannot be overemphasized.
Congressional elections seat those who write our laws, and whether the President is a helpless vestigial tail at the mercy of a hostile Congress, or a power broker who can virtually dictate policy in today’s ultra polarized political climate absolutely depends on voter turnout. We need look only as far back as 2010 when the Republicans reasserted their control of Congress to see how critical voter turnout is, and the effect it can have.
In 2010, general dissatisfaction energized the Republican base and independents to vote out Congressional Democrats and establishment Republicans whom they perceived as having done too little or done the wrong things to right the bottom-up economy. While, at 37.8%, the turnout was nominally higher than most off-year elections, the increase in turnout was due to disgruntled voters and senior citizens who had been deceived into believing their Medicare benefits were threatened by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). In the main, these blocs turned out in numbers roughly equivalent to the numbers for a presidential election year, while Democratic voters just watched the election results on television, or heard about them the next day—allowing just over one-third of the electorate to decide who made the laws!
A significant and profoundly important difference in voter eligibility requirements exists between the US, and the European and Scandinavian examples as well. Voter registration in Sweden, Germany and Denmark is virtually automatic in national elections, requiring a citizen only to have assigned a personal number when having received a government benefit or registered as a citizen, and need not be renewed. Voting in local elections does, however, require proof of residence. Factoring Republican-led voter suppression tactics is a real enough, deliberate corruption, but hardly an excuse for those who are simply inconvenienced, and brings up how widely involvement in the political process by those who can make a difference is.
Flash forward to 2016, and the corruption takes another turn—toward deliberate subterfuge by Bernie Sanders’ supporters that plays to the kind of corruption addressed herein. Not only did the campaign of character assassination against Hillary Clinton that was waged by Sanders’ acolytes who fell in hand-in-hand with the Russian trolls’ effort to undermine the US election process effective in discouraging voter turnout, but approximately 1.5 million of them went so far as to vote for Donald Trump.
Flash forward another four years to 2020, and the same thing is being threatened by both Sanders’ supporters, and the NeverBerners who resent his role in helping Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. The corruption herein addressed in nothing new. Colonial Georgia once had a law requiring voter turnout, or non-voting citizens faced a stiff fine. Nor is protest-voting new—and the consequences of it potentially dire. A question arises from the corruption evident in the US electorate. Is Trump the fulfillment of Benjamin Franklin’s remarks at the end of the Constitutional Convention:
I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
The depth of corruption, that lack of civic virtu thus far addressed, is only what is apparent on the surface. It goes much deeper. The extent to which the Republicans in Congress disregard well known voter expectations suggests that even petitioning Congress, whether through circulated petitions, letters sent by postal mail, email or by telephone means little to them. They can depend on single-issue voters to stand behind them due to the issues they do act upon. The dissatisfaction expressed by so many who participated in the Tea Party phenomenon—and the Blue Wave in 2018—made this abundantly clear. But the fervor was transitory. Other interests with personal appeal that disregard the most pressing needs of the society as a whole—removing the obstacles to the advancement of progressive policy—are being brushed aside.
Corruption is pandemic in America, and starts with an electorate that is too busy talking about the latest episode of some hit television program at the water cooler, or angry that their candidate did not win the nomination. The one certain thing about their lack of civic virtu is that America’s corruption is reflected in the politicians they help become elected—whether for the personal benefit they assume will follow or their apathetic disengagement from the body politick—and nothing about “business as usual” in the nation’s capital will change until they man-up to their responsibility, until they expend the energy on informed involvement in their governance that they devote to grousing about the corruption of those in government.