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Corruption in American Federal Politics: The New Normal

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andrew R. Vaz
November 27, 2023

Our political culture today is filled with bad actors—citizens who appear to want the responsibility of leadership without accountability. Daily, Americans are subjected to the ongoing saga of a former President trying to avoid prison. This is also compounded with elected officials in all levels of government dealing with some ethics violation, tax evasion or just downright lying to the public they serve. What else can one make of the current makeup of the American political system that doesn’t equate with corruption? The question is whether we as citizens must learn to accept this reality. Is this the new normal?

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone believing this country has not had a period where our prestigious leaders engaged in reckless and morally bankrupt actions. From the founding of this nation, America has engaged in heinous, deplorable atrocities that included slavery and genocide. What must be said, however, is that politicians of previous eras wanted to remove the stain of corruption within the American consciousness for a brighter future to emerge. Despite their efforts, sadly, this has never happened. Those fighters for a more optimistic America are long gone—replaced with an apathetic citizenry nowhere near the level of the passionate leaders of the civil rights era.

One clear sign of American corruption is the rapid growth of wealth inequality since the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan’s attack on America’s progressive income tax drove the wedge between the wealthy and the poor. The result was the most significant redistribution of wealth to the top earning, 1 percent of Americans, that has been in progress for over 40 years. Not surprisingly, 1 percent of earners included a critical group: politicians.

Either paid off by wealthy earners or were wealthy themselves, American politicians became the proverbial puppets of the American aristocracy. No longer was an elected official selected for their love of public service. America’s public servant began to look more like a reality television celebrity than a seasoned Washington bureaucrat who graduated from an Ivy League college. Americans often selected the rich and powerful of society to run their government. From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, these celebrity politicians implemented harsh policies that helped keep the wealth imbalance in place, which included the drug war, privatizing prisons and gerrymandering districts to fix election outcomes. While Americans fight rigorously against these policies, politicians are bribed by the rich and wealthy to reduce taxes for themselves. The Trump-era tax cuts are indicative of this—designed on the false notion that the wealthy in this country create jobs and, therefore, they need those cuts that should instead go to lower and middle-class Americans who have to pay their share of taxes and those not paid by the top earners.

The culture of the wealthy also permeates within the political consciousness. There exists a need for more accountability that most politicians exhibit towards the public. Elected officials can make up falsehoods about their past and not face any penalties, as party loyalty is more important than accountability to the people they may serve. Their goal is to get elected and re-elected to their seats to maintain power. While this corruption sweeps through the American political system, our electorate becomes less frustrated and complacent with the idea of a dwindling American democracy.

In short, America is in trouble.

This lack of accountability by elected officials led to attacks on democratic institutions and the notion of what it means to be an American. This nation has faced challenges before, but this struggle strikes at the heart of this nation. President Joe Biden has often said when he speaks about this subject, “We are fighting for the very soul of this nation.” The American public would need to understand that our democracy is fragile and that there is very little time left to repair the decades-long damage.

America may need to look at other nations attempting to eliminate corruption from their governments. Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay use an online platform that allows citizens to monitor investment projects’ physical and financial progress. In Brazil, the results of audits impacted the reelection prospects of officials suspected of misuse of public money. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has suggested that when a country is less corrupt, it invests money more efficiently and fairly.

America’s days of leading the free world are at risk. As long as there is a preeminent threat to our democracy, the citizens of this nation should not become complacent. It is now time for the American public to recognize the failure of our elected officials to preserve democratic institutions. The freedoms we hold dear could be an election away from being eliminated. It sounds like a horrible prediction, but it could be a potential spoiler on how the American dream ends.

AuthorAndrew R Vaz, M.Sc., M.P.A., MPhil is a doctoral candidate in the public policy and administration program at Walden University, already awarded a Master of Philosophy degree in the program. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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