How corrupt is government in the U.S.? Why are Americans so down on their institutions -- and how did we get here? Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, joins the podcast to discuss the rise of populism, the role of modern media and more.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we ask just how corrupt is the government in America? And why are Americans so down on their national institutions? Noah Bookbinder is president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former corruption prosecutor. Noah, welcome to the podcast.
Noah Bookbinder 00:28
It's great to be here.
Mohamed Younis 00:29
At Gallup, we're now at a record low in our data, Noah, in confidence in national institutions. We look at a trend that dates really back to the 1970s and see that Americans are pretty down in their level of confidence in national institutions really across the board. Let me just ask you more broadly, what do you think led us here?
Noah Bookbinder 00:52
So I think we have a couple of different trends that have helped to get us to this point. One is an increasing polarization in American society, so that at really any given time, roughly half of Americans feel like, not only that it's maybe not their preferred government in charge, but they have a real antipathy to the folks who are in charge. And that has gotten much more pronounced, as you probably know better than I do, over the last 40 years or so. And then coming out of that, we have, particularly on the right, I think a little bit on the left, but particularly on the right, the rise of kind of populism, which is based on attacking institutions as kind of the basis of appealing to supporters. So the people who, the nonpolitical people who work in government going after the courts and all of the sort of institutions that that we rely on. You know, that is, that's their bread and butter for attracting support. And that's a message that gets out there every day. So that's one huge thing that's going on.
Noah Bookbinder 02:12
Another huge thing that has gone on during that time is the rise of money in politics. I mean, there have always been ways that money and politics have interacted and that the wealthy have influenced who's in charge and what they do. But this notion that incredibly expensive campaigns are increasingly funded by very, very wealthy people and with less and less transparency as to where the money is coming from, I think, has gone a long way toward contributing to the view among Americans that the government is not working for them. So that's been a thing that has been a combination of increasingly, in my view, bad law from the Supreme Court and this sort of apparatus that has grown up to find more ways and more secretive ways to get money into campaigns. So that, you know, I think that's another major piece of it.
Noah Bookbinder 03:23
The final thing that I would point to is, you know, in some ways where we do have more transparency, and that's a good thing. Anytime something happens that is not, that doesn't go the way it ought to go, it gets out to everybody, and it gets out to everybody constantly. And, you know, that, there can be tremendous benefits to that. But I think one of the downsides potentially of that is that it can lead people to get the sense that, gosh, everybody's corrupt, because I hear about it all the time.
Mohamed Younis 03:56
That's such a perfect segue really to my next question, and it's just to drill deeper on that. A lot of people debate this point, you know, have institutions in the United States -- public institutions, you know, Congress, the presidency, the Court, you mentioned, the FBI (one institution that's been in the news a lot lately) -- is it that those institutions have slipped on their performance as institutions? Or is this public perception and sentiment more a result of the public focus in a modern age of just information influx on every detail of what can go wrong?
Mohamed Younis 04:36
And I say that because, you know, institutions in America, no matter what institution you choose, have a very controversial past, you know, at least at some point or another in their history. So the public being concerned about particularly what federal institutions are doing isn't really something new in America. But what is new is our 24-hour constant social media, cable news focus on things when they go wrong. So tell me again, is it really that the institutions' performance have slipped, or is our focus just much more dramatically expounded on things when they go wrong?
Noah Bookbinder 05:23
I mean, the answer, not surprisingly, is a little bit complicated. I think, with a couple of exceptions -- and they're important exceptions -- but with a couple of exceptions, I think the performance has not gotten worse. You know, there has been corruption and there has been ineptitude in American government since the very, very beginning of American government. And you can point to corruption scandals from the 1790s. And, you know, there are ways in which our government has gotten more transparent, more ethical. You know, administrations like the Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Biden administration have better rules on ethics and conflicts of interest than anything before. And they've successively had better rules than the one before them. You know, there are ways in which government is more efficient than it has ever been. and you know, certainly when I worked as a, as a council in the U.S. Senate, I saw there was constant press about all the stupid and awful things happening in Congress and what I saw day in and day out was, you know, primarily really smart, really well-intentioned people working incredibly hard to try to make life better for Americans.
Noah Bookbinder 06:52
And, you know, so I think that is often, you know, the backdrop to, you know, to these questions. There certainly is, is corruption, there is unethical conduct. You know, that's what I work on every day, and it's really important to root it out, to shine a light on it, to root it out. There's a ton of work to be done. I try to balance that with the notion that government is at base necessary and, if working well, really good for people. And we do this not, not because government is terrible and needs to be punished, but because it needs, we need to do everything we can to make it work better.
Noah Bookbinder 07:36
Now I said a couple of noteworthy exceptions, and I want to flesh out a little bit what those are. One is this rise of money in politics. There have been times in American history where, you know, sort of the flow of money into government officials has been really open and problematic. You know, you have the Teapot Dome scandal and earlier episodes in history, but this is, you know, what we have now is up there with the worst of them, where, you know, you can have billionaires and companies putting millions of dollars into nonprofit, nonprofit corporations that can spend millions on politics without anybody knowing where it's coming from -- except, generally, the person who's getting the money, who knows exactly who's supporting them.
Noah Bookbinder 08:31
And that, you know, that twists the way that government works. It leads to less responsiveness to regular people, less accountability. It is certainly does not mean that everybody is corrupt, but it's a major problem and it's a problem that, at least in this form, is new. As I said, there have been, there have been times in the past when in other ways money has played a similar kind of role, but in recent history, this has gotten worse and worse.
Noah Bookbinder 09:03
The other thing I would point to is, you know, a thing that we saw was when you elect people who premise their whole reason for running for office, being elected to office on the fact that institutions are bad and governments are bad, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, you know, that was the basis of much of Donald Trump's appeal. And he went into the White House with contempt for the federal government, for the executive branch that he was overseeing, with contempt for the other branches of government, contempt for regular rules of ethics and of how democracies would work. And that, you know, that affected everything the government did during the time that he was in office. And you had a sort of regular ... of using government for the financial benefit of the person in charge.
Noah Bookbinder 10:09
You had this sense that every part of government could be used for the political benefit of the person in charge, even when that was not allowed under the law and certainly not allowed under democratic traditions. You had this sense that, you know, that the separation of powers didn't matter to the person at the head of the executive branch, even the idea of a peaceful transition of power didn't matter. And that did just immense, immense damage, not just to, I think, people's views of institutions but also to the institutions themselves. And that was, you know, that four-year period was a time when government got worse. It was not just about perception.
Noah Bookbinder 11:00
And I think, you know, and I don't say that as a partisan matter, you know, as I said, I think, you know, there were a lot of things in terms of ethics that the George W Bush administration did very well -- whether you, whether or not you agree with their policies, whether or not you agree with the policies of the Obama administration, there were a lot of things that they did well, in terms of the functioning of government and ethics. The Trump administration was a, was a different animal. And, you know, that that sort of anti-institutional way of thinking has now taken hold in one of our major political parties. I think it's dangerous, and I think it actually has made government function less well and in ways that are that are less that are less conducive to the public having faith in institutions.
Mohamed Younis 11:52
All right, I got to push back here, man. Isn't -- but a couple of things. First of all, isn't the message that Donald Trump brought to the public a reflection of how a lot of people feel about government in America? Is it fair for us, no matter what we think about those institutions, to sort of expect political appointees, leaders, candidates to sort of mute themselves at the expense or for the benefit of saving the image of public institutions? I know obviously that's not what you're saying, but isn't there a danger in identifying the problem as being the message versus kind of why the message took off?
Noah Bookbinder 12:42
So a couple things about that. I mean, first of all, there's a lot about the way you framed that question that I fundamentally agree with. You know, I think the big part of the reason why Donald Trump was able to be elected was because there was this preexisting mistrust of institutions that had nothing to do with Donald Trump that was there before he got there. You know, that's a big part of, you know, why we at CREW work every day to try to get money out of politics, to try to, you know, strengthen congressional ethics. And when you have, just to name, you know, sort of blindingly obvious example -- when you have members of Congress buying and selling and owning stocks that are affected by the work they do every day, that makes people cynical about whether government is working for them and creates a huge opening for somebody who's gonna come in with a drain-the-swamp kind of message.
Noah Bookbinder 13:42
And so, you know, absolutely, we got to fix those problems, and those problems are, were not Donald Trump's fault. Also, I think you're also right that, that calling out those problems is not only OK, it's necessary. And I think that, that a lot of administrations have been not willing enough to do that, in part because, you know, they don't want government looking bad. And I think that that is a problem. But I also think that, you know, when Trump came into office, he not only made very clear in his messaging the sort of contempt for the institutions and the people of government, but he actually made it a feature of the way that he operated in office.
Noah Bookbinder 14:38
And so, you know, putting that message out there, I think there are ways that are positive and ways that are not positive. But that wasn't the problem as much as the actions of saying that, you know, that, that I have such contempt for government that it doesn't matter if I use it for my own profit. It doesn't matter if I use it for my own reelection. It doesn't matter if I do whatever the hell I want with classified documents, because none of it matters. And that actually results in decisions that are, they not only don't benefit the American people, but they can be deeply dangerous. And that actually mean that the government is not, is behaving in ways that are harmful. And, you know that I think does immense damage, not just to the image of government but actually to government itself.
Mohamed Younis 15:35
That's, and I think that's a fair distinction, very much that, you know, you came in on a message, but once you got into power, you know, clearing up the challenges you identify don't, never seem to really be a priority or a focus. It was, it was really more about learning, you know, the ways of the world, if you will, in terms of how these things can be and have been -- things being institutions, access to decisions the institutions make, can be twisted for political reasons. And I think it's something we've seen time and again in our system, and it's nothing new.
Mohamed Younis 16:14
You mentioned the "C" word -- corruption. We ask Americans, "Is corruption widespread in government?" Most of them think it is, but it's really important for me to clarify, as I always do, that perceptions of local government in America are actually pretty good, and perceptions of corruption in local government in America are pretty low. But that being said, when you ask people about Capitol Hill and just the federal government in general, there is a perception that corruption is widespread in government. I want to ask you how you answer the question of whether it's getting better or worse. And I ask that because even outside of the U.S., one of the challenges social researchers have is the more we ask people about corruption in government, and the more people talk about corruption in government, there's an argument that the perception grows that government is really corrupt, but it's not necessarily based on facts and numbers and criminal investigations, etcetera. How do you answer the question, "Is corruption in American government increasing or decreasing?" What are the metrics you all follow to know that?
Noah Bookbinder 17:29
It's a great question and, you know, you're right. There is a school of thought that I hear every once in a while coming, especially from I think the Kennedy school, that sort of transparency is actually bad. Because when you have more transparency, it just, it doesn't change behavior, it just leads to more people thinking there is more corruption. I don't agree with that. I think that actually we have seen in practice transparency leading to changes in behavior. I think the American people are entitled to know what's happening in their government and who's funding it. And I think we think we need more transparency, but not just -- and part of the problem is you can't just have transparency. You need transparency that leads to reform, that leads to changes in the system. And we've, haven't been really good about that, although there have been have been moments.
Noah Bookbinder 18:27
So, you know, I think in terms of, is corruption increasing or decreasing? It really depends on what kind of corruption we're talking about and how you measure it. You know, in terms of, you know, in terms of officials taking bribes or officials having, you know, conflicts of interest of the level that we think of as kind of potential criminal offenses, I don't think it's getting more corrupt. I don't, and I also don't think frankly there's a big difference between local government or federal government. I think in both of those, there's some corruption; there's not that much. You know, there are a lot of really, really good officials doing really good work. There are some who are abusing their office to benefit themselves in ways that, that are wrong and that are illegal. But, you know, my general sense is that those numbers stay pretty steady. They might even have gone down a bit because I think we have more transparency. We also have, in some cases at least, more and better enforcement. So that's sort of one way of measuring it.
Noah Bookbinder 19:47
Then you have the kind of thing that a lot of us would recognize as corruption, which is not illegal, which is allowed in our system. And you know, that, that -- one piece of that, it's not the whole piece but a major piece of that, is our campaign finance system where it is perfectly OK to take a whole lot of money from, for a candidate to take a whole lot of money for a very wealthy person and then for that person to be given a whole lot of access to that candidate to say what they think should be done in a way that you and I don't get access to those officials. That's out. Not only is that sort of through the cracks permitted in the system, the Supreme Court at this point has explicitly said that that's OK. And that is a kind of corruption that, you know, we've always had some forms of that. But I think it has gotten more brazen and more present and even more necessary that even, I think, officials who hate that it works that way feel like they're not gonna get elected if they don't play that game.
Noah Bookbinder 21:02
And, you know, so that, that's a change. That's also something that, I think for a long time at least, was more of a problem in Washington than in state and local government. I think one of the things that we're seeing is that people have realized that the same sort of influence games that work in Washington can work everywhere else. And, you know, it is starting to infuse state and local governments. And there's just been, frankly, kind of less reporting about it, and less watchdog activity. And, you know, that that's a problem going forward. So that's a form of corruption that I think has gotten worse, and we need to do very specific things to change the rules around that.
Noah Bookbinder 21:43
And again, you know, I also come back to this kind of rise of polarization and populism -- you know, the idea that, you know, we could have a leader for whom the, a segment of the population has such devotion that they're going to be thoroughly unconcerned with that leader using government for their own financial and business gain or, you know, shirking rules and laws to try to keep themselves in power or to help themselves and their friends politically and go after allies. You know, that is the kind of thing that has traditionally happened more in authoritarian kinds of regimes than in a democracy like the United States. And we are, we are seeing that, you know, in a way now that we haven't before -- not across the board.
Noah Bookbinder 22:44
I mean, I think that It's hard to find an administration in the last 30, 40 years where there hasn't been too much sort of revolving door, you know, people coming in from industry and then going back to benefit to work in those industries, and using their government positions to benefit industry. Like that's fairly across the board, although some have been better than others. But this kind of personalization in a way that I would think of as corrupt use of government -- that's not across the board and, you know, that is something that, that was new here in recent years. I think we are on a bit of a respite from that, but there is every reason to think that it, that it could be back in a very dangerous way.
Mohamed Younis 23:40
I want to end by asking you a little bit of a philosophical question. Isn't distrust of government sort of a fundamental part of American culture, in the sense that, how much is too much in terms of distrust, right? We don't want to live in a society where citizens are blindly trusting authority. We, you know, history is replete with disastrous outcomes of that approach. But on the other hand, we can't really live in a functioning society where, you know, there's no trust in public institutions, and we just accept that, you know, this is just the way Americans are and it's a free-for-all. How do, how does a society, how does American society really find that balance between the natural distrust of authority that we really celebrate to some degree as Americans and also having the checks and balances in place to really hold powerful people on any side of the aisle accountable to the public?
Noah Bookbinder 24:44
It's such an important question. It's certainly something I think a lot about every day. I mean, I work for a watchdog organization. Our job is, to some extent, distrusting government. You know, we're the, we're the people who dig through the campaign finance reports and the personal financial disclosures and, you know, every sort of record we can get our hands on, to see what's happening that, that official, government officials aren't telling us about and that the American people need to know. And, you know, we do need that kind of transparency. We need checks and balances within government and outside of government to keep people honest. And you're right that that is, you know, that's where the American revolution came from. That's been a key part of a successful democratic system since before the idea of democracy was even fully formed.
Noah Bookbinder 25:44
At the same time, when you have people whose distrust of government is so fundamental and distrust of other institutions like the media is so fundamental that they will never trust in government, they will never trust what the media says, they will only trust sort of their chosen mouthpieces who are outside of or, even if within, are seen as kind of outside of those institutions -- that is as dangerous to democracy as anything. That that, you know, if, you know, when you have a large segment of the population that has such a fundamental distrust of government and such a fundamental distrust of media and science and academia and all of these kinds of institutions, that they're never going to accept what comes from those institutions, you know, then that, that opens you up to a situation where there is no truth; there is no sort of objective reality. And then, you know, people can be manipulated and led down really, really dangerous paths.
Noah Bookbinder 27:00
And so I think, you know, what we aim for is a system of having regard for institutions, thinking the institutions are worthwhile and important, but that they have to be constantly checked and constantly improved where they're lacking. You know, that, that it is really important that I think people have an understanding that government when working well helps people. But we need checks and we need watchdogs and we need transparency to make sure it is working well. That the media, when it's working well, protects our society, but it doesn't always get it right, and we need to, we need checks there too. And, you know, the same with the courts, the same with sciences, all of those things that, you know, we need to be skeptical, we need to hold them to high standards. But we do that so that they will work the way they're supposed to, and then people can, can have trust in them and, you know, and that gives people a base of sort of truth and reality and values that allows society to work in a, in a meaningful way.
Mohamed Younis 28:23
So less rhetorical screaming at the corruption, less praising the virtue of institutions ad nauseum; more strengthening and establishing mechanisms for more transparency is what I'm hearing from you.
Noah Bookbinder 28:44
That's right. I mean, doing the work of making institutions better; giving them credit when they do it, holding them to account when they don't. But it is, you know, less about that rhetoric and more about doing the work.
Mohamed Younis 28:59
On that note, Noah Bookbinder, he is president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Noah, thanks for being with us.
Noah Bookbinder 29:07
Thanks so much for having me.
Mohamed Younis 29:16
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.