Three political stories have dominated recent headlines. Last Tuesday, voters in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District elected Republican Dan Bishop. The next day, a Republican majority capitalized on Democratic absences to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget. This past Monday, the General Assembly approved new electoral maps yet again. The casual reader could easily miss an unfortunate trend binding these stories together. Something is rotten in the state of North Carolina. Widespread corruption is undermining the legitimacy of state government.
Many readers will read that last sentence as hyperbole. As professors who study corruption and democratic theory, we know that Americans are quick to find corruption elsewhere, but slow to recognize it at home. Data from Transparency International support that analysis. A 2017 survey of average Americans found that only 23% see a corruption problem with local government. A 2018 survey of business leaders and experts, however, dropped the US to 22nd globally, a “red flag” for corruption.
Americans’ unduly rosy outlook reflects in part the notion that anything “legal” cannot be “corrupt.” Over there, candidates financing campaigns by taking millions in contributions from the wealthy is corrupt. Over there, elected officials choosing their own voters is corrupt. In the US, we may bemoan these realities as “how the game is played,” but we hesitate to call them corrupt.
Reconsider those headlines with corruption, legal and illegal, in mind.
The NC-09 election happened because campaign workers of Republican candidate Mark Harris stuffed the ballot box with illegally completed ballots last year. Republicans got a re-do. Voters rewarded their corruption by electing another Republican.
Or consider the budget override. Headlines have focused on whether Republican leaders technically followed procedural rules, ignoring that the Republican majority stems in part from unconstitutional electoral districts. An unconstitutional assembly using tricks to pass a budget vetoed by a legitimately elected governor is not a good look in a democracy.
Finally, that same assembly spent much of the week on redistricting. Thanks to a court order, the public has seen how politicians bargain over precincts for personal and partisan advantage. Whether legal or not, we should never view it as anything but corrupt.
Once it has taken hold, corruption is hard to root out. We begin to accept it as “how the game is played.” But widespread corruption leads to apathy and eventually to outright rejection of a government’s legitimacy.
We have long been in the cynical stage, but there are signs of growing apathy. Turnout almost always drops for special elections, but NC-09 was hotly contested and scandal-ridden. It saw the second highest total outside spending for a special election in the U.S. Yet 33% of voters in the corrupt 2018 election did not vote in the re-run. What is the point of participating in a rigged game?
The true test of legitimacy — citizens’ willingness to accept outcomes with which they disagree — requires that people see the process as fair and free of corruption. When they don’t, the effects are devastating. Abraham Lincoln said it well: “I know the American People are much attached to their Government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”
Last week’s headlines in North Carolina reeked of corruption: the caprice of an elite mob. Challenges to legitimacy may not be far behind. That’s a high price to pay for cheap partisan gain.