UN International Anticorruption Day highlights democracy as a human right

Citizens United protest
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Today marks the 16th United Nations International Anti-Corruption Day, established in 2003 because the UN recognizes that corruption—“a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries”—undermines the very foundation of democratic institutions by distorting electoral processes, perverting the rule of law, and stunting economic development.

This day is particularly relevant to us today in the United States. Over the past decade corruption in America has drastically increased, in large part because it has been sanctioned by disastrous Supreme Court decisions, most notably the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which ruled that money is the same as free speech and its use cannot be restricted in our democratic processes. In the Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court said that unlimited election spending, distinct from quid pro quo, would not create an atmosphere of corruption. Unfortunately, this has proven to be entirely false in practice.

Evidence of increasing corruption is all around us. The Economic Intelligence Unit downgraded America from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” citing Americans’ drop in confidence in governmental institutions and a rise in U.S. inequality. It’s no wonder Americans have lost confidence in our institutions. Since the Citizens United decision, election spending has skyrocketed, topping $5 billion in 2018. Studies find that the American people’s opinion of a given piece of legislation has virtually zero impact on its likelihood of passage, while elite interests’ preferences are strongly correlated with legislative outcomes. And because of concentrated power among the two major political parties, a full 86 percent of U.S. House elections aren’t even considered competitive. Unlimited political spending has created a political environment that caters to the wishes of the wealthy and powerful few, and disregards the voices of the many.

What are the impacts of this increased corruption? According to the UN, they are severe. The UN describes corruption as an impediment to progress toward every Sustainable Development Goal—the set of 17 “Goals to Transform the World” that call on countries across the globe to promote prosperity while protecting the planet by ending poverty, promoting economic growth, and addressing a range of social needs including education, social protection, job opportunities and environmental protection. “Corruption begets more corruption, and fosters a corrosive culture of impunity,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Here in the U.S., we are seeing the impacts of corruption exactly as the UN describes. Our electoral processes are distorted, with powerful and wealthy special interests funding the ever-escalating costs of election and reelection campaigns, and manipulation by powerful political parties undermining the competitiveness of elections; the rule of law is perverted as special interests gain increasing influence over legislation; and economic development is stunted as small and emergent businesses struggle to compete against entrenched interests that get to set the rules of the game through spending to influence policy.

So how do we address this problem? The answer lies in citizen action. As our partners at Represent.us highlight in this recently released video, throughout history, when movements hit the critical mass of engagement from just 3.5 percent of the population, they always win systemic change. Despite understandably high levels of disillusionment among the American voting public, our participation in our representative government will make a difference—indeed, it is the only thing that will.

The UN names two key factors that can move the needle on anti-corruption efforts: empowering and mobilizing youth to fight for a corruption-free future; and citizens taking action, becoming leaders, and holding political leaders accountable. These factors align with our viewpoint at American Promise. Our Cause of Our Time program empowers youth to support a constitutional amendment to address systemic corruption and overturn Citizens United. The Candidate Pledge program is successfully holding elected officials and candidates to task by asking them to sign our Candidate Pledge—13 of the current and former 2020 presidential candidates have signed, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); and Republican Bill Weld. And our national network of active citizen leaders—hundreds of thousands across every state in the nation—are effectively and rapidly driving state-by-state victories in towns, cities and states across the country.

While many issues face our nation and the world, the UN understands that corruption in political systems undermines the basis of democracy, which acts as the underpinning of every other issue driving a better world—from equal rights for women and empowering youth to ensuring free and fair elections. Corruption is a uniting factor in the U.S.—in a recent bipartisan survey, Americans named it the No. 1 issue facing our nation. Americans know and the UN knows: Corruption is the fundamental issue we must resolve if we hope to build a better country and a better planet. The way we address this problem is through citizen action. Political disillusionment is understandable, but addressing political corruption is and must be the work of the people, united as American citizens.

Leah Field is managing director of American Promise.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Bill Weld Campaign finance reform amendment Citizens United v. FEC Corruption Elizabeth Warren Tulsi Gabbard

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