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Hillary Clinton and the Question of Corruption

If you spend any amount of time around the right-wing media you will invariably hear throwaway phrases like, “Hillary Clinton – most corrupt politician ever”, or “Hillary Clinton’s extreme corruption”. But if you check her criminal record you will discover that she has never been indicted, much less charged or convicted, of any crime. What are we to make of this?

Voices on the left will describe Hillary Clinton as being the victim of a multi-decade right-wing smear campaign, making her perhaps the most attacked politician ever (though today it seems everyone who has done something controversial tries to grab that mantle). Though few will put it in such stark terms, you get the impression of a Saint Hillary, pure of purpose and attacked from all sides by the demons of the right wing. So what are we to make of this?

One approach to cognitively balancing the contradiction would be to reflexively split the difference and declare that though she has never been charged or convicted, she is doubtless guilty of something or other. But others will point out that this is exactly what the right-wing hate campaign is attempting to accomplish, taking somebody was guilty of nothing and repeating charges over and over again until the entire public believes there must be something. A better approach would be to step back and look at the big picture, and examine a few definitions.

What is corruption? In the context of politics in means abusing your office and the public trust for personal or partisan gain. The classic picture is the politician taking stacks of cash across the desk in his official office. And there was a time when such a thing was fairly common in American politics. But that was over a century ago, and quite a few laws been passed to prevent it in the meanwhile. Yet even today there are politicians who run afoul of such laws. One famously had a freezer full of cash in at his home. Others have paid for personal expenses with campaign money, or have accepted personal favors from donors for whom they have supported pet issues. This is corruption under the law, and is prosecuted wherever it is found. And it is safe to say that Hillary Clinton has never been found guilty of any of this type of corruption; she has never been charged, much less convicted. In fact, she has been extraordinarily careful to ensure that everything she does is entirely within the letter of the law.

Now there is another type of corruption. This would be  systemic, or structural corruption. This is the corruption that is so system-wide and pervasive that the system itself has defined the activities as fully legal. This systemic corruption could be considered a moral issue, but is not anything that is indictable or for which anyone can be arrested and imprisoned. Complaints of such systemic corruption come most typically from the far left, which is happy to point out the wide variety of ways in which corporations manipulate the political process both to shut down competition and to carve out a favorable regulatory environment that virtually guarantees their own profits and makes it extraordinarily hard for the public to undertake anything related to their misdoings. But of course all of this is completely legal under the law, since the people doing it have a hand in creating the laws.

I would posit the lot of the moral opposition to Hillary Clinton is based on this sense that her life’s work has not been for the benefit of the public, but rather as an operative within a system that is structurally skewed towards the support and benefit of the very wealthy. And there is plenty of evidence to support this perspective. Though she and her husband grew up lower middle-class and spent most of their careers in public service, they are at the present moment extraordinarily wealthy. Her husband Bill Clinton rose to become one of the youngest presidents in the history of the country, and upon leaving office used his celebrity to make himself personally extraordinarily rich. He also established a not-for-profit foundation to which he was able to attract enormous sums of money towards a vague purpose of making the world a better place – ideally in ways non-offensive to the ultra rich. His wife was his willing partner and supporter in all of this.

Hillary Clinton’s own career in public service unfolded in parallel to her husband’s, and as she went in and out a public office she spent her time between networking with the wealthy and powerful and capitalizing on her name to a degree barely imaginable to the ordinary voter. All of this can give moral offense, especially to those of the moderate and extreme left. But none of it is criminal; Hillary was very careful to make sure she stayed on the right side of the law.

So this is the paradox of Hillary Clinton. Her critics on the right have a moral point on which they are technically wrong. Hillary Clinton has never broken the law, but she has benefited extraordinarily from a system that enriches the powerful and the expense of the middle and lower class, and she has worked most of her life perpetuate, strengthen, and expand that system. Her defenders can justifiably say that she found the world the way it is and was extremely resourceful and capable in exploiting all of its opportunities for herself, while carefully staying on the right side of the law. Her detractors  would be far better off with the justifiable charges that she is morally bankrupt and sold out the country, rather than trying to invent criminal charges that do not, in fact, exist.

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