When the son of the president of a desperately poor country starts buying mansions and sportscars on an official monthly salary of $7,000, Charmian Gooch suggests, corruption is probably somewhere in the picture. In a blistering, eye-opening talk (and through several specific examples), she details how global corruption trackers follow the money — to some surprisingly familiar faces.
A crisis of legitimacy swept across American politics in the second decade of the 21st century. Many people had the general conviction that the old order was corrupt and incompetent. There was an inchoate desire for some radical transformation. This mood swept the Republican Party in 2016 as Donald Trump eviscerated the G.O.P. establishment and it swept through the Democratic Party in 2020.
In the 2020 primary race Joe Biden stood as the candidate for linear change and Elizabeth Warren stood as the sharp break from the past. Biden was the front-runner, but fragile. Many of the strongest debate performers — Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bennet — couldn’t get any traction because Biden occupied the moderate lane. By the time he faded, it was too late.
Warren triumphed over the other progressive populist, Bernie Sanders, because she had what he lacked — self-awareness. She could run a campaign that mitigated her weaknesses. He could not.
Biden was holding on until Warren took Iowa and New Hampshire. He or some other moderate could have recovered, but the California primary had been moved up to March 3, Super Tuesday. When Warren dominated most of the states that day, it was over. The calendar ensured that the most progressive candidate would win.
Many pundits predicted that Warren was too much the progressive regulator in chief to win a general election. Indeed, her personal favorability remained low. But the election was about Trump — his personal disgraces but also the fact that he told a white ethnic national narrative that appealed only to a shrinking segment of the country.
Warren won convincingly. The Democrats built a bigger majority in the House, and to general surprise, won a slim Senate majority of 52 to 48.
After that election, the Republicans suffered a long, steady decline. Trump was instantly reviled by everyone — he had no loyal defenders. Only 8 percent of young people called themselves conservatives. Republican voters, mostly older, were dying out, and they weren’t making new ones. For the ensuing two decades the party didn’t resonate beyond its white rural base.
The American educated class celebrated the Warren victory with dance-in-the-street euphoria. In staffing her administration, she rejected the experienced Clinton-Obama holdovers and brought in a new cadre from the progressive left.
The euphoria ended when Warren tried to pass her legislative agenda. One by one, her proposals failed in the Senate: Medicare for all, free college, decriminalizing undocumented border crossing, even the wealth tax. Democratic senators from red states, she learned, were still from red states; embracing her agenda would have been suicidal. Warren and her aides didn’t help. Fired by their sense of moral superiority, they were good at condemnation, not coalition-building.
When the recession of 2021 hit, things got ugly. The failure of two consecutive presidencies had a devastating effect on American morale. It became evident that the nation had three political tendencies —
- conservative populism,
- progressive populism and
- moderate liberalism.
None of them could put together a governing majority to get things done.
Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.
Moderate liberals had a basic faith in American institutions and thought they just needed reform. They had basic faith in capitalism and the Constitution and revered the classical liberal philosophy embedded in America’s founding. They inherited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s millennial nationalism, a sense that America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth.
Progressives had much less faith in American institutions — in capitalism, the Constitution, the founding. They called for more structural change to things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the basic structures of the market. Trump’s victory in 2016 had served for them as proof that racism is the dominant note in American history, that the founding was 1619, not 1776. They were willing to step on procedural liberalism in order to get radical change.
With the Republicans powerless and irrelevant, the war within the Democratic Party grew vicious. Progressives detested moderate liberals even more than they did conservatives. The struggle came to a head with another set of Democratic primaries in 2024.
The moderate liberals triumphed easily. It turns out that the immigrant groups, by then a large and organized force in American politics, had not lost faith in the American dream, they had not lost faith in capitalism. They simply wanted more help so they could compete within it.
By 2030, progressive populism burned out as right-wing populism had. The Democrats became the nation’s majority party. This party ran on a one-word platform: unity. After decades of culture, class and demographic warfare, moderate liberals defined America as a universal nation, a pluralistic nation, embracing all and seeking opportunity for all.
In a wildly diverse nation, voters handed power to leaders who were coalition-builders not fighters. The whole tenor of American politics changed.
Looking for help on immigration, the Trump administration is silent in the face of Guatemala’s effort to seal its dirty war archive.
With the quiet acquiescence of the Trump administration, the Guatemalan government is threatening to bar access to a collection of national archives that have been at the core of various attempts to prosecute Guatemalan politicians and officers responsible for some of Latin America’s most heinous atrocities.
The move to suppress the archives is part of a larger campaign by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who faces allegations of receiving illicit campaign funds, to undercut the rule of law through the purge of judges, police officials, and archivists who have been at the forefront of Guatemala’s effort to investigate corruption, narcotrafficking, and war crimes, according to foreign diplomats and independent experts.
But senior U.S. officials in Washington and Guatemala City have rebuffed appeals from working-level staffers and foreign diplomats to publicly challenge Guatemala’s action. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is seeking Guatemala’s help in stemming the flow of asylum-seekers and refugees into the United States, has remained largely silent over these developments.
One U.S. official said that America’s reluctance to confront Guatemala is part of a crude unwritten bargain between Morales’s government and the Trump administration: “They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else,” the official said.
The “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts,” said Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive and an expert on the Guatemalan archives. “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.”
In the latest sign of U.S. reluctance to challenge Guatemala on human rights, Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, blocked the release of a public statement in early June that would have urged Guatemala to back down on its effort to restrict access to the archives.
“These archives are an essential source of information to clarify and understand critical historical truths from Guatemala’s history,” reads the statement obtained by Foreign Policy, which was suppressed in June. “Access to the archives by historians, victims of abuse recorded in these archives and their families, the public, and the international community, has furthered Guatemala’s progress towards accountability, justice, truth and reconciliation.”
Foreign Policy sought a response from the Trump administration last Wednesday. The State Department did not respond until nearly an hour and half after this article was published Tuesday.
“The United States strongly supports continued public access to the Historical Archive of the National Police,” according to a statement from a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs. The Tuesday statement included the two sentence cited by Foreign Policy in the suppressed statement.
The initial decision to block the statement—which had been approved by the State Department press office, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and several other key bureaus—came as the United States was engaged in sensitive negotiations on a so-called safe third country agreement, which would commit Guatemala to process political asylum claims from foreigners, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras, who cross its border in transit to the United States. “My understanding is Kim Breier killed this because she didn’t want to do anything that would piss off the Guatemalans,” said one congressional aide.
During the past two decades, the United States has invested in efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala,
- funding a United Nations commission that investigates corruption and illicit activities by armed groups,
- strengthening the judiciary, and
- training and equipping police units with expertise in counternarcotics and corruption.
- The United States has spent millions of dollars over the years to preserve the police archives, including through the provision of document scanners and the funding of a digitized archive maintained by scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.
Guatemala’s bloody 36-year-long civil war resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 people, mostly at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces. A 1996 U.N.-brokered peace agreement paved the way for the return of exiled rebels, established a new national police force, and pried open the door to the prospect of public reckoning for crimes committed during the war. The Guatemalan military and police resisted, denying that they had preserved detailed records of their activities during the conflict. But in 2005, more than 80 million documents and records, dating from 1882 to 1997, were discovered in seven rat-infested rooms at an unused hospital building in Guatemala City owned by Guatemala’s now-defunct National Police.
Since then, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive has helped convict more than 30 military officers, soldiers and paramilitaries, including a former presidential chief of staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala’s late dictator, Gen. Rios Montt—who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide for overseeing mass atrocities in the early 1980s — though his conviction was later overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court.
The archive has proved a valuable resource for U.S. law enforcement. The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used the archive to identify Guatemalan rights abusers living in the United States.
But the management of the archives has long infuriated some of those in Guatemala’s most powerful business and security sectors, who believed that it has been used as a tool of the left to gain revenge against their former enemies. They have cited the role of the archive’s former director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, a former guerrilla leader who has recruited staff from the country’s left wing to run the archives. In August 2018, the U.N. Development Program, which has helped administer the archive program since 2008, abruptly dismissed Meoño Brenner. He has since fled the country, following death threats.
The move to restrict archive access is only one element of a wider effort to defang justice institutions in Guatemala. In September, a landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—whose corruption investigations landed a Guatemalan president and vice president in jail will shutter its office.
The demise of the commission, which had also exposed alleged illegal campaign contributions in Morales’s 2015 presidential campaign, came after a two-year-long effort by the president and his allies, including sympathetic Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials in Washington, to undermine it. Pro-military lawmakers in the Guatemalan Congress, meanwhile, have been pressing to pass an amnesty law that would result in the release of dozens of military officers and death squad leaders from jail. That effort has been stalled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The effort to suppress the archives is being spearheaded by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, a popular figure in Washington, who has represented Guatemala in the safe third country negotiations.
In a May 27 press conference, Degenhart announced that his office and Guatemala’s National Civil Police would seek greater control of the archive. He also threatened to limit access to the archives by foreign institutions, an apparent reference to the University of Texas at Austin, which has assembled a massive digitized version of a large portion of the police archive. “You can’t allow foreign institutions to have the complete archives,” Degenhart told reporters.
In response, the U.N. and other foreign envoys invited the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, to join ambassadors from several other countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, on a visit to the archive to voice opposition to granting police greater control over the archives. Arreaga declined. The spokesperson from the State Department Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs declined to comment on whether Arreaga declined the invitation.
In Washington, State Department officials sought support within the administration for a public statement that would place the United States squarely on the side of those seeking to preserve broad public access to the archives.
“The message [Guatemalan authorities] are getting is we don’t care what you do as long as you do everything in your power to prevent” foreigners from reaching the U.S. border, said Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who was born in Guatemala. If that requires “supporting a corrupt government, that is what [the Trump administration] is going to do.”
Public messaging and statements from U.S. envoys and the State Department can have an outsized political impact in Central America, former diplomats say. “It’s astonishing how important the U.S. voice is in terms of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society … in this region,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “There are clearly things that governments would do, actions it would take, but for the U.S. watching and speaking out,” she said.
The lack of response, according to diplomats, emboldened Guatemala to ratchet up its campaign against the archives.
In early July, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports informed the U.N. Development Program, which administers the archive budget on behalf of foreign donors, that it would take over full management of the archives, raising questions about its financial viability. The U.N., which pays staff salaries, was forced to lay off the archives researchers and archivists.
On July 10, Guatemala fired its chief national archivist, Anna Carla Ericastilla, on the grounds that she provided access to foreign institutions, including the University of Texas, and improperly raised funds from donors to pay salaries to archivists.
Degenhart, meanwhile, has overseen a massive purge of Guatemala’s reformed police force after being named interior minister in January 2018. The following month, he fired the director of the National Civil Police, Nery Ramos, along with three other top cops. All told, Degenhart fired some 25 ranking officers and more than 100 agents, including 20 of the 45 police agents assigned to work with the U.N. anti-corruption office.
Guatemalans “have observed a systematic process of dismantling the National Civil Police, ordered by the interior minister himself, who seems determined to destroy 20 years of progress,” according to an August 2018 study by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations Specializing in Security, or FOSS.
The fate of the archive has become inextricably linked to the White House immigration policy.
The threat to curtail access to the archives came on the same day that Degenhart had signed an agreement with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, for the deployment of 89 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees through the country. It also coincided with the Trump administration’s negotiation of a safe third party agreement with Degenhart.
Trump in March ordered all U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to be cut until they drastically reduced the number of migrants traveling north through Mexico to attempt to enter the United States. Critics, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said the move would only exacerbate the migration crisis, as U.S. assistance helped address root causes of instability that caused people to flee north.
In June, the State Department announced it would release $432 million of the $615 million in aid to Central America, but it warned that new funding would not be released until the Northern Triangle governments took more steps to address migration.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it had reached agreement on the safe third country pact, which would commit Guatemala to processing political asylum claims from migrants who cross its border in transit to the United States. The U.S. has yet to publish a copy of the pact, leading to speculation about what the deal actually entails.
Still, the move has raised concern about the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already asserted that such an agreement would require approval by the Guatemalan Congress. Democratic lawmakers and other activists have criticized the move and vowed to fight it in courts. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is “cruel and immoral. It is also illegal.”
“Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires,” Engel said in a statement released on July 26, after the Trump administration and Guatemalan government signed the agreement.
Repealing the controversial decision is a pipe dream. And there are more promising avenues for campaign-finance reform.
From the moment the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC came down, it scandalized liberals. The decision heralded the “hostile corporate takeover of our democratic process,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) thundered at the time.
In 2017, a commissioner of the Federal Election Commission resigned, claiming “since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, our political campaigns have been awash in unlimited, often dark money.”* This was the animating sentiment of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president; he even went so far as to claim that billionaires are simply “buying elections.”
This idea has given rise to a new liberal battle cry: Repeal Citizens United! Unfortunately, that tactic is naive and misguided, and relies on a misunderstanding of the law and politics surrounding the case. As we approach the 2018 congressional elections — and beyond that, the crucial presidential election of 2020 — it is more vital than ever to have a clear view of where this ruling fits into the mosaic of campaign finance law.
Such understanding will, in turn, shine light on what can be done to make the election process fairer and make politicians more responsive to all their constituents, not just the big spenders.
Some cities and states are already experimenting with programs that strengthen the voices of ordinary voters. Building on such efforts is likely to have far greater effects than continuing to demonize Citizens, whose logic is defensible on First Amendment grounds.
Most widespread in liberal circles is the idea that Citizens opened the floodgates to massive amounts of corporate spending in politics. But as many legal scholars have argued, the floodgates were already open. Citizens is not responsible for the massive amounts of money showered on favored candidates. Nor is it responsible for the rise of so-called dark money in politics.
Citizens didn’t upend our campaign finance system. It was a logical next step, given past court decisions.
Let’s put the hated decision into context. The inundation of elections with private cash is not the result of Citizens but rather was facilitated by the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo. That case established the legal framework sanctioning billions of dollars of independent private campaign spending. In it, the Court ruled that limits on campaign donations — direct donations to candidates — are constitutional but said it was unconstitutional to limit non-donation expenditures, such as independently funded advertisements.
Such independent spending — which cannot be coordinated with candidates, according to the Court — was protected under the First Amendment as not just speech but political speech. The idea is that money is a necessary instrument for supporting a political candidate, whether it’s paying for yard signs or taking out an ad in the newspaper.
Not unreasonably, the Court ruled that limitations on independent expenditures would constitute limitations on one’s ability to support a candidate through any number of media. Placing a dollar limit on such expenditures would arbitrarily prevent certain kinds of campaign support simply by the fact of how expensive they are.
Our inability to trace campaign donations to their source — the dark money issue — is the result of the lack of federal regulations to make disclosure mandatory. And such regulations are legal; the Court said as much in Citizens, with eight of nine justices agreeing on that point! The only thing standing in the way of transparency is congressional stonewalling. In 2010, Republican senators defeated a disclosure law 59 to 39, which would have made it more difficult for donors to use legal loopholes to hide their identities.
Citizens simply has not had the seismic legal impact that many think. Since Buckley protected money as speech, the only question was whether corporations were legitimate speakers. It may surprise some to hear, but the Court had already answered this question in 1978. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court recognized a corporate right to free speech, concluding that the value of speech in the course of political debate does not depend on the identity of the speaker. Citizens simply followed the precedent of these two cases.
So when liberals intone that “corporations aren’t people,” thinking they are making a knock-down argument against Citizens, they miss the point. Citizens did not make corporations persons. And corporations do not need to be persons to receive First Amendment protections. Citizens upheld the liberty, provided by Bellotti, of corporations to speak, and they speak under the rules provided by Buckley.
The details were debated by expert lawyer Floyd Abrams and First Amendment scholar Burt Neuborne not long after Citizens came down. Abrams noted that even the liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, recognized that the Court has “long since held that Corporations are covered by the First Amendment.”
Neuborne, in response, argued that corporations lack dignity and a conscience, which he thinks underpin the human right to free speech. But Justice Kennedy, writing for the slim five-justice majority, cited the long history of First Amendment protections for corporations. The Court had sided heavily with the Abrams view.
The Court seems inclined to limit the definition of “corruption” to explicit bribery
The only remaining question was whether there could be a justification for the government’s curtailing of that speech. Abridging political speech falls under the strictest category of judicial scrutiny; any law that does so must be justified by a “compelling state interest.”
One such objective, some suppose, is stopping corruption, a clear threat to the integrity of Congress. And indeed, in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), the Court reaffirmed that combating “corruption” rises to the level of a compelling state interest. But in Citizens, Justice Kennedy said the only kind of corruption that would count in this context is the most direct kind: “quid pro quo” corruption, which covers only vote-buying bribery.
No such vote buying was at issue in Citizens, since the controversy centered on the release of a privately funded campaign video during an advertising “blackout” period. Such off-limits periods, established by the McCain-Feingold legislation, paid insufficient heed to the Court’s precedents on money as speech and the high bar for restricting political speech.
In response to Kennedy’s narrow conception of corruption, Harvard Law professor and onetime presidential contender Lawrence Lessig has advocated for a broader idea of corruption. In his book Republic, Lost, Lessig spells out his notion of “dependence corruption,” whereby Congress is unduly responsive to big donors because they are dependent on them for campaign money.
He takes pains to argue on “originalist” grounds, hoping to appeal to the conservative majority of the Court, who attempt to cleave closely to the meaning of words as they are found in documents at the time of the Constitution’s drafting. Alas, his arguments have largely fallen on deaf judicial ears.
Where does that leave us?
We are almost certainly stuck with Citizens, not to mention Buckley and Bellotti. The major hope of many concerned lawyers and academics in the runup to the 2016 election has been dashed: the hope of filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat with a more liberal justice who might help reverse the decision. Instead, reformers got Neil Gorsuch.
So even if there were a stronger legal argument to be made against Citizens, that argument won’t attract enough votes in the Supreme Court. Desperation has led some, like Sanders, to push for a constitutional amendment limiting corporate campaign spending. But beyond being a pipe dream, given the institutional challenges, this tactic fails to take seriously the intricate First Amendment questions at issue.
The upshot of the Sanders campaign is its demonstration of the strength of a candidacy funded by small donations. As a candidate, Sanders rejected Super PAC funding in favor of donations averaging well under $100. Since Super PACs are the primary means individuals and corporations funnel their money to campaigns, it is historically noteworthy that a candidate without such support was capable of seriously contending for the presidency.
The lessons to draw from Sanders’s campaign is not that the system is healthy. Instead, we should conclude that the medicine to cure it may take the form of enabling citizens to make more Bernie-size donations. As of late, there has been an uptick in under-$200 donations to congressional races. In order to make such donations a staple in our democratic process, they should be supported by legislation.
Such a program has been introduced in Seattle, which gives away “democracy vouchers,”which could serve as a national model.
The basic idea is simple: Every eligible voter in Seattle receives $100 in vouchers, which they can freely donate to campaigns in the local city elections. This means every voter can participate in the pre-election process by using their money to “speak up” for candidates they endorse, and it enables lesser-known candidates to find financial support without bending the knee before big money special interests.
Theoretically, this ensures that every citizen has a baseline level of equal participation in the political process. It expands our understanding of political equality beyond “one person, one vote” to a wider notion of equal opportunity for electoral participation.
The local focus is a crucial first step to reshaping public participation in campaigns. As ACLU national legal director David Cole has argued, the most likely path to substantial federal campaign finance reform is by winning small victories in cities and states. Fostering state- and local-level initiatives accomplishes several things.
First, it draws more citizens into the debate over the proper role of money in politics — an essential step toward a sustained national conversation.
Second, it allows for political and legal experimentation. Because the Supreme Court is unpredictable, especially given the uncertainty of Justice Kennedy’s swing vote, attempting several strategies at once for public funding increases the chances that a constitutionally passable version is found.
More experiments also mean more models that can be used as contrasts to the federal system, making the weaknesses of the federal system all the more clear.
Third, such an approach will spark important legal work, which is far from a purely academic matter. By pursuing ballot initiatives and enacting local laws that address money in politics, we will invite legal challenges by entrenched, moneyed interests. This forces judges to issue ever more opinions on what is constitutional, justifying themselves along the way.
Higher courts will receive appeals and further scrutinize this reasoning. This, in turn, will attract legal academics like moths to a flame, whose work will be cited by advocates and courts.
All of this will arm the public with constitutional arguments to defend the integrity of our democracy.
There is no guarantee that all of this will be enough to counterbalance the power of big money in elections. But we can hope that bottom-up political activism will light a fire underneath the complacent rump of Congress. Increased national dialogue, successful local and state initiatives, and a proliferation of academic criticism of current law and policy all generate real political pressure.
Signs of hope
Disclosure laws are not out of reach in the coming years, and increased participation in local elections, subsidized by voucher systems, may usher in increased voter turnout for national elections. Higher turnout has been shown to heavily favor one of the two major political parties. Hint: It’s not the Republicans.
Liberals should take note of the recent special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Outside donations for the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, were more than five times larger than for the Democrat, Conor Lamb. Yet Lamb pulled off the upset, showing money isn’t everything. He drew strength from a well-mobilized, engaged electorate.
Such vigor can be stimulated in elections across the country — particularly if we provide concrete, monetary means for voters to participate in the selection of their representatives.
Rather than continuing to rail against Citizens United, reformers should pursue strategies that increase democratic participation and encourage voter turnout.