How Political Corruption Impacts Culture
From a traditional perspective, when people think of South America, many think of a group of countries mostly Latin that are still developing. Often, the term “emerging” or “developing” is used to describe them instead of “third-world.” Despite the foregoing, many interpret that description as a polite way of saying “not a first-world country yet but working on it.” The term is used to avoid offending the sensibilities of Latin peoples particularly since there is so much interest in Latin American natural and human resources. Most Latin Americans are very sensitive about being called “third-world.” Unfortunately, conflated with these terms is the idea that South American countries have serious problems with their governments and experience significant corruption, rampant crime, poor sanitation, poor education, drug trafficking, food, housing, and utility shortages. Over the past decade, I have written extensively about what is going on in South America particularly in Brazil.
For the most part, almost everyone in Brazil knows the government is corrupt whether they admit it or not. Living in South America provides an opportunity to see first-hand and up-front what government corruption looks like, how it works, and how it impacts the culture of people. Like cancer, if it is not caught in time, it will spread and destroy its host. Also, if it is allowed to settle in some secretive place within the system of the host without aggressive treatment to remove it, or at the very least delay its growth, it grows and becomes more threatening, more deadly. Differently put, corrupt governments bleed the natural and human resources of a country even to the point of social or economic collapse.
In the context of discussing Brazil, the government has the appearance of a democracy – that is embracing the tenets of Western liberalism with equality and justice for all of its people as the central theme – in reality and beneath the surface, it functions more like some type of modern-day European imperial monarchy from the 18th or 19th centuries; complete with its flavor of royals, nobles, aristocratic families and serfs. Some of the names of these families go back as far as the settling of the country. The point here is that a super-rich class of elite controllers and descendants making money in more ways than one could imagine are controlling everything. And just beneath them are the children and extended family members that head up the government – the elite political class. So, there you have it. The elite controlling class and the elite political class all in it together. It is not difficult to guess what keeps them up at night; worrying about “continuity” – the next generation after them. For this is their purpose and agenda. And their objective is to continue remaining in control at all costs regardless of the destruction to so-called “democratic institutions” or the suffering it causes others. Often, when confronted with this description of their activities, they normalize their behavior by stating that other countries do the same. As though this in some way justifies their corruption.
It is safe to say that none of this is exactly new. This is actually prevalent throughout the world in countries where democracy is just a “prop” and the real objective is for the ruling and political classes to maintain control hiding behind a façade of liberal democracy. Meanwhile, they are busy designing ways to appropriate public funds to enrich their interests and families. The only real difference in Brazil’s case is they have their unique brand of it. A 90-year old, Brazilian union leader who lived through the period of dictatorship once told me that Brazil and the Brazilian people are a paradox. During my time in Brazil, I have met and talked with Brazilian doctors, lawyers, professors, and intellectuals that were forced to flee the country during the dictatorship. Some fled to several countries during their self-imposed exiles before returning home during the mid-1980s when a new government took control of the country – a democratic government.
In contrast to the majority of democratic countries in the world, one of the first things on their new agenda was forcing people to vote. Voting in Brazil is mandatory and if you do not vote, then you have to declare on a government form why you did not vote. After a while, if you fail to make this declaration, then you lose certain citizenship rights. For one, you lose your passport. Also, you are not eligible to seek government employment. And, there are financial penalties as well for failing to vote over an extended period. But in all fairness to Brazil, there are about twenty countries throughout the world that claim to be democracies but have mandatory voting. To clarify reasons, authorities claim that if people were not forced to vote, they would not participate. So they must be forced to vote so the country can practice and participate in democratic political governance. The only problem with that excuse is politicians all over the country every election cycle journey into the major cities and rural areas bribing people with food, parties, and promises of employment to vote for them. And why would they not want to participate in a system that would protect their rights? Do they know something that we do not know? In most democratic countries to give anything of value to manipulate a vote is considered not only corruption but an outright crime.
Perhaps, the most noticeable example is the special interest groups. These special interests begin to form political parties. Each of them wanting their space and place. Even more striking, Brazil is faced with a tsunami of different political parties. There are at least 27 different political parties in Brazil and at least three of them are communist political parties. This is where it gets confusing. How can a so-called, middle-income country with only about 1.6 trillion dollars a year in revenues accommodate 27 different political parties? The answer – not possible. Even the United States with its 22 trillion a year in revenues could not accommodate 27 different political parties each wanting a piece of the pie. So how do they accommodate all these different political parties and their demands? You guessed it – by turning a blind eye to corruption. Each party has a bevy of social programs designed to help the citizens of the country. Each has a group of employees that work to see these programs, once funded, become operational. The only problem is that half or in some cases, more than half of the employees are people that do not exist. Their salaries are funneled into fake companies and accounts and eventually into the pockets of the political elites who came up with the programs in the first place.
When we consider the political governing body of Brazil, we discover that for more than two decades following the end of the military dictatorship, a group of rich, right-wing, autocrats controlled the government and its decision-making processes. This political class enjoyed complete and unquestionable power and influence. Moreover, instead of meeting challenges to sustain Brazil’s growth into the future, they pillaged the public coffers through corruption, threw the country into huge debt, and failed to meet the objectives of investing in social and educational improvement for the future of Brazil.
The foregoing clarifications go a little way toward describing the problem but the question is how does all this affect the culture of the people? The answer – people just give up hope and stop trying. They begin to think that nothing they do is going to change anything – including voting. They begin to stop believing in democracy as a political system that can benefit them. They begin to believe that all politicians are corrupt regardless of the party and none of them care about their welfare. They begin to think what good is an education when you cannot find a job that will help pull you up out of poverty? They begin to turn to crime and drug trafficking to make a living because they have no other options available to them. They become nihilistic about everything. Over time, these attitudes and behaviors are passed down to future generations and the people become imprisoned by “a death of repetition.” The passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next is the way and means of culture. The same way elite controlling and elite political classes pass down culture to their future generations, culture works the same way for the poor – by continuity.
So now, the United States is faced with a battle between a political party that has become corrupt and authoritarian, and one that professes allegiance to the ideals of Western liberalism. And it seems, for the most part, one political party is willing to cast aside the principles upon which their constitution is framed, the practical use of science and critical reasoning, opened-minded liberal debate, and is even willing to embrace elements of white supremacy and violence in order to pander to the dark nature of constituents; all to “re-capture” a power that this type of behavior caused them to lose in the first place.
Despite the foregoing, the struggle in the U.S. for political power is becoming more bizarre and surreal. Perhaps, the most noticeable example of this is the in-fighting that is occurring within the ranks of the U.S. Republican Party. For all of its prominence and power, the Republican Party seems ironically scattered and divided like the 19th-century Whig Party. The all-consuming issue of slavery was the Whig Party’s ultimate undoing pitting Northern and Southern Whigs against one another. Today, the issue of “the Big Lie” pits Republican Party politicians against each other. Even more striking is the similarities in political interests. It seems the Whigs shared hatred of President Andrew Jackson, they were mostly Protestant moral reformers who wanted to pass legislation against Catholic immigrants; some Whigs had anti-slavery sentiments but at the same time were not against slavery. American Institute scholar Philip Wallach states that “Whigs were a bisectional Party that drew voters from both the North and South.” However, “the Whig Party just could not find a way of dealing with the slavery issue that would satisfy both its Northern and Southern wings.”
It is worth stressing that along with the slavery issue that was tearing the Whig Party apart, the Whigs suffered a series of political defeats. For example, the Whigs won the presidency in 1840 with William Henry Harrison but he died of pneumonia after only 32 days in office. In 1848, the Whigs chose Zachary Taylor who won the election but also died two years into his presidency. And then, Henry Clay, the most influential and vocal leader of the Whig Party died in 1852 along with Daniel Webster, another prominent political voice. The divisive slavery issue came to a head in 1854 with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that authorized new states and territories to decide if they wanted to allow slavery. What is important here is the anti-slavery Whigs decided that their Party was not sufficiently committed to halting the spread of slavery, splintered off, and formed the Republican Party along with anti-slavery Democrats. Among those prominent Whigs who turned Republican were Thaddeus Stevens, William Seward, and Abraham Lincoln.
In the U.S., Trump planned to install a corrupt autocratic administration by undermining the Constitution of the United States and the Rule of Law with the assistance of the Republican Party. This process had several different points of attack such as gerrymandering, stacking the judiciary, changing election rules, encouraging discrimination and police violence against minorities, attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, women, and gay communities. It is not inconceivable to suppose that the damage the Trump administration caused and the in-fighting within the Republican Party can eventually render the Party extinct. For in the history of political parties in the U.S. there has been a bevy of parties that have faded into inevitable obscurity such as the Federalist Party, the National Republican Party, the Anti-Masonic Party, the Whigs, the Liberty Party, the Know-Nothing Party, and the Greenback Party. It is important to understand that what we are witnessing could be the demise of the Republican Party in the United States. Again, the similarities to the 19th century National Republican Pary and the subsequent Whig Party is striking. A coalition of different interests that hated Andrew Jackson and thought of him as a despot who usurped power from Congress to serve his own “populist” ideals and an astounding political rise followed by a relatively quick and total collapse. Thus, it seems the present-day Republican Party in the U.S. will either morph into another political party or self-destruct at its own hands.
A tempting but perhaps facile way to deal with political corruption and its impact on culture is to create a false narrative that flies in the face of fact or inculcate a reality that suppresses the truth but appeases the masses – at least a significant part of them. Corruption leaves society and its people weak, hollowed-out, without hope of life improvement, and desperate. It tends to create economic divides so huge that the thought of moving up the social ladder is non-existent. What most adherents fail to realize is that when you render the majority of the population of a country unimportant, then the remaining “important” portion has to do all the heavy lifting to sustain the entire country – alone (now think about those taxes). At least for now, it seems the Republican Party just can not find a way of dealing with the January 6th insurrection issue. The real question is will it be the undoing of the party as the slavery issue was for the Whigs?
“It’s remarkable how fast it all fell apart for the Whigs,” says Wallach. “From right before the 1852 election thinking they were in good shape, to 1854 being clearly obsolete and in 1855 literally going out of business. “It’s pretty striking.”
It is important to understand that corruption’s greatest threat is the tendancy to become normalized.
McNamara, R. (2019). Extinct Political Parties of the 1800s; History Channel. (2021). Why the Whig Party Collapsed; Hart, K. (2021). Trump’s Attack on American “democracy.”