Motivating the Masses to Mobilize Against Government Corruption

In America, where most people have access to reasonably priced food and a handheld device that can instantly display any form of entertainment conceivable, taking up arms against corruption in government is a hard sell.

by / December 22, 2016

Editor's note: This story is part one in a three-part series on the role technology can play in tackling government corruption.

Why do people lie, cheat and steal? Because it’s better than suffering; because if they don’t, someone else will. The question of man’s true nature that has beleaguered thinkers for millennia has an answer. Man is not good, nor evil. Man is self-interested. He has capacity for deeds of all kinds, but settling on either label is to miss the point.

As for whether government is corrupt — the answer is yes. All governments are corrupt to some extent because all governments are made of people, and people do things they are not supposed to do. People bend the rules where it suits them. Most know this is how the world works; from diapers to diapers, it's always politics.

But can technology make a dent in political corruption? In this three-part series, we'll delve into the corruption that has existed in the public sector for decades and why, the ease (and difficulty) in mobilizing smartphone-wielding citizens to do something about government corruption, and the tech companies and organizations that are working to shine some light on the matter.

History of Corruption in Government

Corruption is difficult to account for because the whole idea of the thing is that it's meant to remain secret. The best-known examples of corruption in American government — like the Watergate scandal — leave many to believe that this sort of behavior is normal in politics. Watergate is frequently cited because it involved the president and because it happened in a transition period where the nation's cynicism was concerned. It was a wake-up call for many, and American government has provided many more examples of corruption since.

In 2009, for instance, Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery after $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer for what he maintained were perfectly legitimate reasons. They weren't.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office after it was discovered he solicited bribes for political appointment after Barack Obama became president and left an empty seat in the Senate in 2008. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.

Corruption forced the little city of Crystal City, Texas, to basically start over after its mayor, city manager, mayor pro tempore, a city councilman and a former councilman were arrested by federal agents in February for charges of bribery linked to illegal casino operations.

Despite these incidents and many others, the U.S. has well-developed corruption controls. Things could be worse, as many other nations demonstrate. The slippery bit is the presence of corruption that actually legal runs through the American system. Lobbying, for instance, is viewed by many as a form of corruption run rampant, and is simultaneously protected by the First Amendment.

Corruption vs. Constructive Behavior

Establishing exactly what corruption means in the context of a government, what the consequences are, just how corrupt a given government is and what anyone can do about it are far more difficult questions — ones that people like Colgate University professor Michael Johnston have spent their lives studying and are hoping to find satisfactory answers to.

Johnston writes books about corruption, including one called Corruption, Contention and Reform. In it he explains how man's selfish nature — the very thing that causes all the ills of the world — is the same tool that can be used to embolden democracy. Whether a man throws a brick through a window during a riot or punches a ballot on election day, he commits both acts in self-interest. The society with a broadly based democracy is the one that creates an infrastructure to encourage the more constructive behavior.

Johnston poses a method of using man's self-interest to bring more voices to the political process through a system he calls "deep democratization" — deep because it permeates all segments of society and all levels of government. Deep democratization encourages a system in which people are thoroughly represented and one in which government is capable of doing what those people want. Democracy is not a cure for corruption and in some cases throughout history has been shown to make corruption worse. But what deep democratization purports to do is at least take a shot at making things more equitable.

"Given the harm corruption does to the vast majority of people," he wrote, "it ought to be easy to mobilize opposition to it — but it is not."

Finding the Motivation to Mobilize

Mobilizing against corruption is relatively easy in times and places where life is unbearable. But in America, where most people have access to reasonably priced food and a handheld device that can instantly display any form of entertainment conceivable, taking up arms against oppressors is a hard sell. After all, fighting corruption is dangerous and someone might drop their smartphone. And to what end, exactly? There are no guarantees in a revolt. This is similar to the free-rider problem in economics. People are asked to sacrifice their own needs, comfort and safety for the possible benefit of the group at some undisclosed date. Most rational, self-interested people would pass on such a proposition unless pushed to the extreme bounds of indignity or suffering.

Historically in the U.S. and throughout the world, there have been many instances of people joining the political process because they were pushed too far. American history supplies recent examples. Between 1954 and 1968, many black Americans put their own safety on the line for the betterment of the group. Gay and transgender people took up the picket sign about the time racial segregation ended in America. Both of the aforementioned movements continue petitioning for rights today. All sorts of minority groups today spend their time, money and lives helping their groups get better representation. This is how democracy works. It's seldom anyone participates in democracy solely for belief in the process.

The strides toward equality gained via the civil rights movement in past decades combined with the generally high quality of life that Americans enjoy today puts the subject of government corruption in an awkward spot. It's like knowing there's some faceless entity out there stealing a dime from everyone's piggy bank each day — it's not quite enough for anyone to quit their job and hunt down whomever's doing it, but it's enough to plant a feeling of powerlessness and frustration.

"You have a lot of people telling the pollsters nowadays, 'Politicians don’t care about people like me,'" Johnston told Government Technology. "That’s pretty serious business in a representative democracy. The American system doesn't promise or guarantee people very much, but supposedly it promises everybody the chance to have a voice and to be taken seriously, and people don’t believe they are."

Only 19 percent of Americans trust their government "always or most of the time," according to a study from Pew Research in 2015. Only 20 percent described government programs as being "well run." And 74 percent said they believed elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country's. Congress' approval rating has hovered around 15 percent in recent years, dipping as low as 9 percent some months.

If the American people don't believe they're being taken seriously, maybe it's because they're paying more attention than they get credit for. Every election, Americans complain that they only have two choices of who to vote for, and every election it's the same two archetypes — the no-nonsense conservative and the compassionate liberal. This is the beginning and the end of the democratic process for many Americans, if they show up to vote at all.

But it's just as well if they don't, because the Electoral College renders the popular vote pointless, anyway. And then there's the scientific studies showing that after they're elected, politicians do, in fact, form policy based on the wishes of business interests and those who funded their campaigns rather than the will of the people.

With this data in mind, political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern universities concluded in 2014 that the U.S. is technically an oligarchy. The only thing more disheartening than being told your country's political system is a farce is finding out that no one is that surprised by the news, nor does anything about it.

But a movement has begun, one in which civic technologists and nonprofits are outfitting those smartphone-wielding folks with apps and websites they can use to make a difference. Or at least that's the goal.

Read part two: Using Technology to Tackle Corruption

 

 

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPTION

There was William J. Jefferson, the Louisiana representative who was sentenced in 2009 to 13 years in prison for bribery after $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer for what he maintained were perfectly legitimate reasons. They weren't.

Dennis Hastert, who served as Speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007 is both the longest-serving Republican to hold the position and a serial child molester. Hastert pleaded guilty in 2015 to criminal charges of structuring financial transactions to conceal payments to a man he had sexually abused decades earlier. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison, two years' supervision after release and a $250,000 fine. He was not criminally charged for child molestation because the statute of limitations had expired.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland was imprisoned for corruption twice, first spending 10 months in federal prison in 2005 and 2006 for pressuring contractors to give him cash and home renovations. Then he was indicted again in 2014 on seven counts of election fraud for which he was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2015.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office after it was discovered he solicited bribes for political appointment after Barack Obama became president and left an empty seat in the Senate in 2008. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.

Corruption forced the little city of Crystal City, Texas, to basically start over. Its mayor, city manager, mayor pro tempore, a city councilman and a former councilman were arrested by federal agents in February for charges of bribery linked to illegal casino operations.

In the New York City Police Department, a sergeant and two high-ranking officials were charged this year with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, stemming from accusation that they accepted rides in private jets, trips to Las Vegas that may have included prostitutes, and gifts received between 2012 and 2015 with an estimated value of more than $100,000. Businessman Jeremy Reichberg, who contributed heavily to Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign, was charged with using his connections with the department to expedite gun applications, dismiss tickets and obtain free police escorts that sometimes closed major city streets. A second businessman, Jona Rechnitz, pleaded guilty to his charges.

When the economy crashed in 2008, the banks that caused the crash were famously given their money back in a government bailout. Kareem Serageldin, an executive of Credit Suisse, was consequently sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a scheme to hide more than $100 million in mortgage-backed security losses. Few others faced negative consequences and many top executives were given bonuses larger than what most people will earn in their lifetimes. Though it's a matter of conjecture, some analysts believe the American economy is headed for a similar crash today, prompted by bubbles in other markets, the country having learned little from the greed, hubris and incestuous relationships between government and big business that precipitated the last crash.

 

 

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.