The word “corruption” to the American ear usually leads to another: bribery. We have a narrow definition of corruption, an image of someone paying a government official with a bag of cash slipped under the office door. We like to think of ourselves as above such open thievery. We’re sneakier about it. Yet this election produced two candidates who have obviously engaged in practices that some might consider corrupt (sorry, Hillary). The outrageous speaking fees earned by the Clintons, however, were much easier mental images to grasp than Trump’s complicated web of hidden business entanglements and unverified dossiers. Far easier to picture Hillary with a big old check from Goldman Sachs.
Senate confirmation hearings are one of the greatest mechanisms for holding a person so publicly to account.
Betsy DeVos, fumbling for words and screwing up basic questions, is similarly easy to understand. She has, as Bernie Sanders said, simply bought her way into this. And she has sorely miscalculated.
The self-made man is an enduring myth of the American meritocracy. While wealthy people have often held office, generally they are those who have dedicated their lives to serving in government (the Kennedys, the Bushes). Whether they had altruistic motives is open for debate, but certainly they could have taken their money and done something else entirely. What Trump is playing with, however, is the notion that the best rises to the top, here in America, regardless of class. Betsy DeVos is the most glaring recent example that speaks truth to the lie of the American dream. It’s made worse by the fact that he picked her to lead, ideally, the one institution in America that should create equal opportunity and social mobility: public schools.
Paul Krugman introduced me (and I’m sure most other readers) to the word “kakistocracy,“ rule by the worst. Others have called the coming Trump administration a kleptocracy, or crony capitalism. But both characterizations miss the point that our understanding of corruption in the United States is fundamentally flawed. DeVos, stuttering and stammering and smiling as though at her first job interview (which it is), should remind us that the influence of money in politics has effects beyond the crude bribe or the insider trade.
When we look at DeVos, such an obvious caricature of a political donor vying for theoretically one of the highest positions of public service, we should see not only incompetence but also corruption.
Americans revere money, and some consider Trump to be a success for having turned an inherited fortune into something much larger. He has not, like DeVos, used this wealth to pick up a lifelong pet political cause (well, birtherism), and he has not engaged in the sort of philanthropy that one expects of billionaires. That DeVos selected such a charged, controversial issue as school choice – couldn’t she have built some libraries and schools like the Carnegies? – has placed her in an uncomfortable position. For perhaps the first time in her life, she will have to be accountable.
Senate confirmation hearings are one of the greatest mechanisms for holding a person so publicly to account. They also make for great television, and DeVos was in primetime. The last time we saw a woman so thoroughly grilled was Clinton over Benghazi, and the contrasts are impossible to ignore. When we look at DeVos, such an obvious caricature of a political donor vying for theoretically one of the highest positions of public service, we should see not only incompetence but also corruption.
It’s corruption that’s at the heart of our current political system, and it needs to be cut out.