Since the Supreme Court cleared the way for unlimited independent political expenditures by individuals, unions and corporations, there has been a fierce debate among academics and activists about what the term “corruption” means. For five justices on the court, “corruption” means “quid pro quo” — a bribe, or an exchange of a favor for influence. But an almost unanimous view, certainly among Democrats, and even among many Republicans, has emerged that this is a hopelessly stunted perspective of a much richer disease. Certainly, quid pro quo is corruption. But equally certainly, it is not the only form of corruption.
Even if no deals are made, the influence of special-interest super PACs is a corrupting influence on American democracy. Even without a quid pro quo, the incredible concentration of direct contributions from a tiny fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population is a corrupting influence.
Corruption is not just a contract. Corruption is also a kind of economy — an economy of influence that leads any sane soul to the fair belief that private influence has affected public policy. It is for this reason that practically every Democrat has insisted that the court’s Citizens United decision (and its progeny) needs to be reversed. It is this idea that has motivated millions to petition Congress to propose an amendment for that reversal.