When Louis XVI presented Benjamin Franklin with a snuff box encrusted with diamonds and inset with the King’s portrait, the gift troubled Americans: it threatened to “corrupt” Franklin by clouding his judgment or altering his attitude toward the French in subtle psychological ways. Th is broad understanding of political corruption—rooted in ideals of civic virtue—was a driving force at the Constitutional Convention.
For two centuries the framers’ ideas about corruption flourished in the courts, even in the absence of clear rules governing voters, civil offi cers, and elected officials. Should a law that was passed by a state legislature be overturned because half of its members were bribed? What kinds of lobbying activity were corrupt, and what kinds were legal? When does an implicit promise count as bribery? In the 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court began to narrow the definition of corruption, and the meaning has since changed dramatically. No case makes that clearer than Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, according to Zephyr Teachout’s book Corruption in America (Harvard University Press).
In 2010, one of the most consequential Court decisions in American political history gave corporations the right to make independent political expenditures to influence elections. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion treated corruption as nothing more than explicit bribery, argues Teachout, a narrow conception later echoed by Chief Justice Roberts in deciding McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014. With unlimited spending transforming American politics, Teachout explains, Citizens United and McCutcheon are not just bad law but bad history. If the American experiment in self-government is to have a future, then we must revive the traditional meaning of corruption and embrace an old ideal.
Sarah Chayes, Senior Associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “At last someone has written a book that puts a name to what is perhaps the most signifi cant 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. … 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 aft er the fact.”
Writing for the New York Review of Books, David Cole said, “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.”
Zephyr Teachout is Associate Professor of Law.