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Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United Hardcover – September 29, 2014
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At last someone has written a book that puts a name to what is perhaps the most significant factor shaping American politics today: corruption. In a masterly work of scholarship, Zephyr Teachout…traces the history of American approaches to what was long considered a mortal threat to the republic. She demonstrates that recent jurisprudence, which has whittled down the definition of corruption to encompass only a contractual exchange between briber and public official, represents nothing less than ‘a revolution in political theory.’… Teachout calls for a return to the Framers’ preference for across-the-board rules to help prevent corrupt acts before they are perpetrated, rather than relying on punishment after the fact. (Sarah Chayes Wall Street Journal 2014-09-26)
In Corruption in America, an eloquent, revealing, and sometimes surprising historical inquiry, Teachout convincingly argues that corruption, broadly understood as placing private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root of what ails American democracy. (David Cole New York Review of Books 2014-09-25)
Teachout’s book is filled with colorful anecdotes about Americans getting away with all sorts of chicanery…Corruption in America shows that it is possible to establish and maintain governmental institutions that shield us from our worst instincts. This was the goal of Madison and his peers, and it could still be achieved with a better public-election finance system, which could be constitutional under Citizens United if the system did not restrict private donations. Democrats who will be looking for a fresh agenda in 2016 should read Teachout’s book carefully. (Max Ehrenfreund Washington Post 2014-09-21)
A book that merits the large readership it may get…Teachout’s narrative spans the history of the United States from its beginnings through Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. (Scott McLemee Inside Higher Ed 2014-09-24)
Zephyr Teachout argues that recent court decisions―and a lax attitude toward corruption―are putting private interests over the public good. Teachout complains of the revolving-door practice of congressional representatives retiring and becoming lobbyists. She says the policy breeds ethical conflicts and tainted decision-making. (Carl Campanile New York Post 2014-09-17)
Teachout’s beautifully written and powerful book exposes a simple but profound error at the core of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision. The originalists on the Court forgot their history. This is that history―and eventually it will provide the basis for reversing the Court’s critical error. (Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress―and a Plan to Stop It)
This is a wonderful and important book. Zephyr Teachout shows what’s wrong with how the Supreme Court thinks about democracy and political corruption, how we got to this terrible place, and that it wasn’t always this way―and doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of learning and original synthesis here, and also an unmistakable voice, which blends a lively intelligence with passion for democracy as a way of life. (Jedediah Purdy, author of A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom)
You have probably heard pundits say we are living in an age of ‘legalized bribery’; Corruption in America is the book that makes their case in careful detail…State governments subject to wealthy corporations? Check. Speculators in legislation, infesting the capital? They call it K Street…And all of it has happened, Teachout admonishes, because the founders’ understanding of corruption has been methodically taken apart by a Supreme Court that cynically pretends to worship the founders’ every word. (Thomas Frank New York Times Book Review 2014-10-16)
[Teachout] wrote [this] book, she says, primarily in answer to conservative members of the Supreme Court, who, in a series of decisions climaxing in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, have successively narrowed the legal definition of corruption to the point that it now effectively includes only outright bribery. In Citizens United, for example, the majority struck down corporate spending limits in politics on the grounds that there is nothing inherently corrupting about corporations trying to buy influence with politicians so long as there is no explicit quid pro quo. Teachout spends much of her book showing just how naive, dangerous, and, frankly, anti-American the Founding Fathers would have considered such reasoning…It is certainly refreshing to watch Teachout remind jurists who pretend to wrap themselves in the mantle of strict construction just how at odds their views of human nature and the role of government are with those of the framers. (Daniel Bush Washington Monthly 2015-01-01)
[Teachout] has written an intelligent, stimulating, and wide-ranging retort to the Roberts Court’s constrained view of corruption. In Corruption in America, she argues that for democracy to thrive, we need a far more capacious characterization of this key concept…Her book in part [is] a greatest hits of court cases and laws dealing with bribery and lobbying, full of corrupt land deals and railroad intrigue…While there is obviously plenty to debate and disagree over in how we might define and delineate corruption, the broad unsettledness of the concept is perhaps Teachout’s point. She has some ideas on how we might think about corruption, and she highlights others’ ideas as well. But mostly, she just wants us to debate and discuss corruption more, to view it as a controversial issue, and not to let the Roberts Court sweep it away into a marginal corner so that it can then declare it irrelevant, thus clearing the way for unlimited campaign contributions…Teachout’s book may be just the rousing call to arms we need for the fight ahead. (Lee Drutman Democracy 2015-02-01)
About the Author
Zephyr Teachout is Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University.
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“This new legal order,” Ms. Teachout writes, “treats corruption lightly and in a limited way. It narrows the scope of what is considered corruption to explicit deals. It reclassifies influence-seeking as normal and desirable political behavior.” Teachout attributes the Court’s logic to a loss of confidence in democracy, though I might question whether the Right-Wing ideology that holds sway on today’s Court has ever held any brief for democracy. “The Court has become populated by academics and appellate court justices, and not by people with experience of power and politics, who understand the ways in which real problems of money and influence manifest themselves.”
For two centuries, the prevailing view in American legislatures and courts was that factually demonstrable, quid pro quo bribery and extortion were unusual phenomena — that the potential for political and judicial corruption was far broader and rested on the cultivation of personal relationships that could grow on the strength of financial support. “By corruption, the early generations meant excessive private interests influencing the exercise of public power.” Thus, until the 1970s, it was broadly taken for granted that large corporate contributions could distort the policymaking process. Then, in 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court overturned the campaign spending limits that were a centerpiece of the 1974 campaign finance reform legislation passed with broad bipartisan support in the wake of Watergate. Basing its reasoning on Buckley, the Roberts Court in 2010 then, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, overturned a consensus that had lasted for two centuries by opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate campaign spending.
Teachout, who recently ran an insurgent campaign for Governor of New York against incumbent Andrew Cuomo, explores the history of views on corruption from colonial times to the present. She cites the seminal legal and political thinkers whose views shaped those of the Founding Fathers — chiefly Montesquieu — and details the evolving legislative and judicial treatment of bribery, extortion, and more subtle forms of corruption within the American political system.
Teachout demonstrates that corruption was one of the Founders’ overriding concerns when they framed the Constitution. The fundamental separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government — a concept taken whole from Montesquieu — and the bicameral design of the legislature were adopted in response to the potential for corruption inherent in unchecked power.
Is it ironic — or merely further proof of hypocrisy on the Right — that the “conservative” jurists who dominate today’s Supreme Court view themselves as strict constructionists limited by the Founders’ intentions, except when the Founders’ views clash with their pro-corporate ideology?
It’s time for us to return to first principles. An important early step might be to take a fresh look at Montesquieu, who “put citizens at the center of the thriving republic. For him, the true danger in a republic is mass disaffection with public life, when society turns away from trying to influence government and citizens instead turn toward their own preoccupations and examining how they can personally benefit from particular laws. Montesquieu argued that government breaks down when citizens do not care about it.”
In that light, what might we think about the most recent Federal elections, in which, as Time Magazine wrote, “Only 36.4% of eligible voters voted . . ., down from 40.9% who voted in 2010, according to preliminary analysis by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. The last time voter turnout was that low was 1942, when only 33.9% of voters cast ballots, according to the United States Elections Project.”
As Time notes, “The last time voter turnout for a national election was as low as it was on Nov.4, Hitler was still in power, and Mitch McConnell was only nine months old.” What does that say about how much US citizens today care about our government?
No matter which side of the corruption argument you're on, this is an important work.