Ever since the election of Donald Trump, political scientists have been writing about the role played by the erosion of democratic norms and public ethics.
I recently came across an article titled “Whatever Happened to Honest Graft,” in a publication called Splinter. The article is a vivid illustration of that erosion; it began with a description of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband (my nominee for “America’s most evil man”) Mitch McConnell.
Last week, The Intercept’s Lee Fang and Spencer Woodman published a story about how the family of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, funneled millions of dollars to their family foundation from their own offshore tax shelters, which are incorporated in the Marshall Islands in order to hide their dealings and profits from the United States government. That is, the government that Chao and McConnell help to run.
The Transportation Department says, “Chao has no affiliation with the family shipping business,” though she did receive at least one officially reported gift of millions of dollars from her father…. McConnell, who has never had a career outside of politics, and who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, somehow has a personal net worth of around $26.7 million. None of this is particularly unusual.
The article wasn’t about Chou and McConnell–the clue lies in the observation that the reported behavior isn’t “particularly unusual.” For example, there’s Bob Corker, who Matt Taibbi has described as“a full-time day-trader who did a little Senator-ing in his spare time.”
Corker is notable for the volume of his trades—in one extreme example, he made 1,200 trades over a nine month period in 2007, according to Taibbi—but not for the acts of making ethically questionable investments or carrying out trades seemingly based on information known only to members of Congress.
Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was a longtime member of Congress; his Cabinet confirmation was nearly derailed by the emergence of reports that he had invested in a small Australian biotech firm and then had pushed legislation to speed the FDA approval process. During his seven months at HHS, he made a habit of buying healthcare-related stocks and then pushing for policies that would increase their value.
The article explained at some length how much various Senators will benefit personally from their “tax reform” bill–after all, a bill intended to benefit the wealthy could hardly help benefitting lawmakers, since most of them range from extremely comfortable to very rich. As the author of the article notes,
I think this blatant self-dealing, and thin-skinned outrage at the suggestion that it is what it plainly looks like, is another example of norm erosion. In a Twitter thread a while back, the writer Jedediah Purdy identified a version of this new shamelessness: the more you think others are cheating on their taxes, running agencies for their own interest, doing public service just to switch sides through the revolving door, the more useless it is for you to do differently.
Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but the basic outline of the story looks pretty clear. Bribery, graft, and naked self-dealing used to be commonplace in our politics, especially in the big urban “machines,” as exemplified by Tammany Hall. The professionalization of our politics—its takeover by serious lawyers and respectable, credentialed men—meant, first, that those practices were reformed away. Then it meant that they returned, totally legal but slightly disguised, as normal politics.
As is the case with most of the norms that have been swallowed by the sea recently, this one’s erosion is exemplified by Donald Trump, but he is the culmination, not the cause. Serious people who imagine themselves to be virtuous, or at least no less virtuous than their neighbors, have normalized what used to be easily recognizable as graft.
As the author points out, at least corrupt organizations in the past, like Tammany Hall, actually built things (Tammany Hall built most of upper Manhattan) while they were skimming off the top and doling out overpaid patronage jobs.
Even in their corruption, today’s elites seem to lack the sense of civic or social responsibility of our crooks of old.