Ten Miles Square


July 19, 2013 9:30 AM Are Our Political Parties Really Corrupt?

By Seth Masket

According to Slate, three out of four Americans consider our political parties to be corrupt. This is based on a report by Transparency International. Indeed, the parties appear to be more corrupt by this metric than any other governing institution. Are they?

As Andrew Scott Waugh (via Facebook) notes, this claim rests on two very controversial definitions: parties and corruption. Arguably, this blog has spent over a year struggling with the definition of a political party. (See here and here for examples.) This is an unsettled topic among political scientists, and it is not at all clear what the respondents in the survey are thinking when asked about parties. Quite possibly, they are thinking about the party in government (folks like Obama, Reid, and Pelosi for the Democrats, and maybe Boehner or Romney for the Republicans), but they could also be thinking about people like Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, or they could be thinking about their annoying Republican/Democratic aunt/uncle they argued with last Thanksgiving. They’re probably not thinking about the respective chairs of the DNC and the RNC (can you name them?), but who knows?

But if parties are a murky concept, corruption has to be even murkier. Traditional definitions of corruption usually focus on dishonest actions performed for personal (usually financial) gains. Is that what Americans mean when they say that parties are corrupt? Do they think that Senate Republicans have been filibustering presidential nominees for financial rewards? Are Democrats pushing handgun regulations because they’re on the take? Do they think that the parties are being dishonest about their disagreements?

I would suggest that the label “corrupt” does not mean here what it’s usually taken to mean. Rather, respondents are simply saying that they don’t like parties. This isn’t new, and it isn’t unique to the U.S. (Slate notes that parties were rated the most corrupt institution in two-fifths of the countries included in the study.) Parties are typically — fairly or unfairly — seen as the source of divisions in our society rather than the articulation of them, and there is no shortage of journalists and politicians who suggest that without parties, we’d be able to govern our nation effectively and get along with each other. All this means is that if you work for a party, you should expect to be reviled, but you’re not likely to face corruption charges for it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.


  • HMDK on July 18, 2013 11:47 AM:

    ALEC, corporate money is free speech, need we go on? I don't doubt that a lot of people, in their minds, mash together political parties, commentators and their morning banana. Doesn't really matter, beyond that it's a sad breakfast. What matters is wether the parties are actually corrupt. Which, amazingly, you don't even touch on. So basically you've just written a piece that declaims.. what, exactly? That some people can't make breakfast? And people pay you for this?

  • PV on July 18, 2013 6:49 PM:

    There does seem to be some huge holes in this article.

    I think the parties are corrupt because representatives in those parties vote constantly against things that the public favors (sensible gun control? a public option?) but various monied interests don't want (NRA, Koch Brothers, Insurance Companies). Politicians and public servants routinely move back and forth between ridiculously high paying jobs in the private sector and the government, then enact/change/vote for or against policies/laws that benefit the corporations or lobbying firms they worked for. (Dick Cheney and Halliburton; a bunch of Obama's Financial people). Nowadays Republican governors and state reps pass laws on the fly and do all kinds of thing to enact unpopular laws including restricting people's rights to protest or to even appear in their statehouses, as well as ongoing efforts to redistrict and suppress votes, etc.

    Now, if you want to get really pedantic about this, yes, you can argue that the brush is too broad and the word "corruption" would be better assigned to "politicians" rather than parties, or "governments" rather than parties, but I think that misses the point. Parties come up because they are the vehicles through which we elect people. Lots and lots of money gets thrown around TO elect people and there's always dirty things that come out eventually about lying, cheating and stealing surrounding elections. It might be things like Michelle Bachmann breaking campaign finance rules as is just coming out, but there's plenty more of those. Then there's always the outbreaks of dirty tricks with robocalls and misinformation about Voting Day and all that. No, the individual "parties" may not themselves conduct the lying robocalls, but individual party candidates benefit from them and may even know about them.

    And of course there's the simple fact that Lobbyists hold waaaaay more sway in Washington than do American citizens. ALEC is a good example but there's many, many more. Which isn't about "parties" so much as it is about general Washington corruption.

    And then there's the fact that, whatever the reasoning, Wall Street has gotten out of jail free despite reams and reams of evidence that practically every institution has broken the law. The fact that some wrist-slapping fines have been leavied isn't enough.

    I could go on.

    It would be more accurate to say that people use parties as a catchall or proxy for government, the beltway, political parties, politicians, pundits, lobbyists, etc.

  • Daniel Buck on July 19, 2013 9:57 AM:

    Precisely. In the poll, corruption is standing in for a Bronx cheer. Also of note, there was no category "me & my neighbors, aka the voters," the people who belong to the parties, elect the legislators. Sigh. Dan

  • Ronald on July 19, 2013 10:00 AM:

    Party is not a murky concept- humans are hard-wired for an 'us vs them' mentality. Red/Blue. Pepsi/Coke. Yankees/Red Sox- whatever. The concept of 'parties' in the US has been regulated into a two party system, but pretty much a majority of Americans know where they generally stand.
    Corruption is not a murky concept- Are you doing something because it is in your best interest, or in the best interest of those you're serving? For Congress, it is pretty plain that corruption is rife- most politicians are seen as self serving and in the pay of corporations, PACs, lobbiests, and then, maybe down on the end of the scale, the people they're representing in Congress.

    Damn, based on your work above, nothing can ever be defined because every definition can be parsed into a million pieces, which makes your work on trying to make a conclusion of something impossible. Can't prove or disprove anything if you've spent the entire article declaring your facts as irrelevant and too vague to matter. And you're a professor? If a student turned in a paper with such vague definitions as to make it impossible to draw a conculsion, what grade would you give them?