CHICAGO – “Politics is a dirty business,” remarked a juror after former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted on 17 counts of corruption June 27. Blagojevich is expected to serve years in prison for attempting to sell President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, among other crimes.
The media feeding frenzy is over for the moment. Left in its wake is the wreckage of Blagojevich’s family, whose two children will now have to grow up without him around.
But the long-term damage also includes reinforcing deadly cynicism among voters about politics generally. A lot of people around here shrug their shoulders as if to say, “So what’s the big deal, what did Blagojevich do that isn’t done by them all?”
Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and current University of Illinois political science teacher, co-authored a study entitled “Curing Corruption in Illinois.” The study said corruption has been a fact of life for over 150 years in the state. In addition to three governors, over 1,000 Illinois elected officials have been imprisoned for corruption since 1970.
This is about more than sending a few bad apples to jail. Unfortunately, swept under the rug with Blagojevich’s conviction is the wider system of corruption rooted in politics dominated by big corporate money showered on candidates in exchange for bigger returns.
The history of capitalist politics and government has been riddled with corruption. Anytime you have money and greed involved in politics you will have corruption. The more money involved, the more corruption.
And socialism historically has not been immune either, although for different reasons. This shows the need for checks and balances, transparency and grassroots democratic watchdogs.
After Blagojevich was impeached in 2009, public outrage was high, and there was a lot of support for passage of far-reaching anti-corruption reforms.
The General Assembly passed some limited reforms that were signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. But they didn’t get to the crux of the problem and dismantle the system that gives rise to it.
Corruption is not only about an individual elected official benefiting. It’s about the wealthy and well connected benefitting and taxpayers losing.
The jury forewoman in the Blagojevich trial, Connie Wilson, said the “veil of corruption in Illinois is one of the reasons the state struggles with solving problems,” she said.
Simpson tied the corruption to the machine patronage system that has dominated Chicago and state politics. Graft and “pay to play” politics, a nice euphemism for bribery, are deeply endemic to the system.
Blagojevich’s father was a steelworker, and he always had liberal inclinations, later as a lawmaker. His populist appeal and refusal to always be a “team player” with the political bosses endeared him to a lot of voters.
But once the younger Blagojevich was introduced to the “Chicago way” through his father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell, he was on a track that would eventually lead him to his day in court.
Political contributions by wealthy and big corporate interests demand some favor in return. Privatization of public assets widens the door for corruption. Big money pours in to determine who gets the spoils and represents a whole new system of patronage.
The potential for corruption is far worse after the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizen’s United case. Unregulated and unlimited corporate money is flooding the electoral arena.
Even the best of candidates and elected officials are vulnerable. With the cost of elections at every level making it almost prohibitive for working people to run, raising money is a full-time occupation. It’s almost inevitable that promises will be made.
The main solution to corruption in politics is to remove the influence of money through publicly funded elections. It would mean the election of reform governments at the local, state and federal level dedicated to carrying out such a reform.
In fact, the coalition that is fighting for jobs, equality and a green, demilitarized economy that works for all must make electoral reform a part of its program to limit and do away with corruption and to provide transparency.
And reform candidates who represent the labor-led coalition must stick to the grassroots coalition. Once elected, they need an active, mobilized grassroots constituency to ensure they are doing the right thing.