Glen Olives Thompson Opinion
political corruption

Corruption: U.S. can learn from Mexico

Political corruption rife north of the border, and sanctioned by the highest court

Mexico can teach the United States a lesson about political corruption? What has this liberal law professor been smoking? Just the facts (I assure you).

Political corruption in Mexico in an endemic problem, to be sure. Everybody gets that. But the endless lectures on Mexican corruption from American pundits and politicians are tiresome, especially when political corruption in the U.S. has been officially sanctioned.

That’s right ─ in Citizens United v. FEC the Supreme Court for all practical purposes erased the concept of political corruption, and five years later the results are in. America has morphed into a plutocracy where the interests of Wall Street hold sway over the voting electorate.

But first a quick peek at Mexican election laws. Mexico’s main political parties receive public financing of their campaigns for a three-month period and get take in 10% of their campaign funds from supporters with a cap of US $71,000 per donation. The National Electoral Institute (INE) pays for media advertising and ensures equal access for candidates while discouraging negative advertising.

Moreover, term limits ensure there is no automatic advantage in incumbency. This all seems rather reasonable and fair, leading one expert election observer to declare that Mexico’s election system is “the best in the Americas.” Overt and scandalous corruption aside, political influence is largely driven by popular opinion and not pocketbooks.

The picture could not be more different in the United States. Political corruption is rife, and sanctioned by our nation’s highest court.

The Supreme Court, with a brazen sweep of its arm, cleared the dinner table of the annoying delicate stemware keeping politicians from drinking directly from the trough. The high court legalized political corruption under the guise of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, overruled a century of election laws and prior court precedent, and through rhetorically impressive yet logically questionable reasoning, opened the floodgates of corporate and private money into politics.

With the glasses gone and the trough filled to the brim, flocks of politicians began filling their pelican-like gullets on the most potent and addictive of elixirs ─ cash. Five years later the wholly expected outcome has come to fruition: the richest Americans and the most powerful corporations control the political process.

With our already loophole-ridden election laws further eviscerated, the wealthiest “people” (read “corporations”) are free to further pursue their narrow economic interests ─ special tax breaks, government subsidies, fewer rights for workers, and targeted exemptions from environmental laws.

Citizens United is bad law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it is the one case she would overturn if she could, and Justice Stevens in his 90-page dissent chastised the majority by pointing out what any middle school student could by writing, “Unlike [the majority], [the Framers of the Constitution] had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.”

And yes, people are still scratching their heads at Chief Justice Roberts’ supercilious (or perhaps insufferably naïve) contention in McCutcheon (Citizens United’s ugly baby brother) that political corruption only exists as quid pro quo, to which Justice Stevens correctly replied that this constitutional perfidy “fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone.”

Transparency International defines political corruption as “the manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.” Chief Justice John Roberts has turned this definition on its head, legalizing corruption, bastardizing the very concept by stripping its essence down to quid pro quo agreements.

The wealthy among us are now even more able to buy and sell law, and this is not just my own opinion based on anecdotal evidence. Salon’s Elias Esquith recently interviewed Brigham Young University professor Michael Jay Barber, whose research concluded that U.S. Senators’ policy positions align much more closely with their wealthy donors than with the average citizen voters in their own states. To strip this conclusion from its neutral academic language: politicians are whores who service only paying customers. And it’s legal.

The United States (once the envy of the world for its political transparency and egalitarian constitutional principles) is rapidly becoming a de facto plutocracy, retaining its status as a representative democracy only in name. Meanwhile, the poor and the powerless are slowly withering on the once-succulent vine of hegemony, and are left with an aging empire where the privileged wealthy seem hell-bent on getting what they can, when they can, how they can, by any means they can.

If this trend continues ─ and I sadly have every expectation that it will ─ our children (if they are unlucky enough to be part of the 99%) will be destined to live “nasty, brutish, and short” lives, to quote Hobbes.

We’re witnessing what the toxic stew of money and politics can do, and it isn’t good. Citizens United and her congenitally malformed offspring are self-perpetuating monstrosities.

Americans need to take a long, hard look at the Mexican election system, and learn something.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua. His primary research interest is law and public policy; in addition to publishing academic research, he has written op-eds for The Baffler and Digital Journal among other publications.

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