Are Politicians Actually Becoming Less Corrupt?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Americans are not satisfied with politics as usual, but perhaps things aren’t as bad as they seem. Data from the Justice Department shows that — contrary to public opinion — corruption in government has been lower in recent years.

Public approval ratings of Congress are at record lows, and Gallup reported that Americans perceive political corruption to be on the rise. Perhaps this is due to several scandals that have unfolded or continued unfolding in the past year, including those concerning NSA leaks, Veteran’s Affairs, and the IRS, or perhaps what appears to be a constant slew of individual politicians’ corrupt actions — from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate to last week’s indictment of Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) for abuse of power. But is public perception really accurate?

According to a Gallup poll, 79 percent of respondents in 2013 answered “yes” when asked if corruption was widespread throughout the American government. This is quite a leap from 59 percent answering “yes” in 2006. People certainly are concerned about corruption in the government being on the rise, but, according to FiveThirtyEight, it’s not.

Using stats from the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department on corruption case, it found that corruption has waxed and waned, but in general been less frequent over the years. In 2012, there were 1,078 people — federal officials, state officials, local officials, and private citizens — charged with corruption offenses. This amount is the least of the past decade, with the last significant peaking being in 2008 with 1,304 cases individuals charged.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that officials have become better at concealing corruption, but by the data available to measure instances of corruption, it does not appear to be on the rise.

Even though the numbers don’t show an increase in corruption, it’s easy to see how Americans draw these conclusions. In January, the government led a Gallup poll for “what Americans consider the most important problem facing the country.” With Congress in constant gridlock, a lack of positive, productive work makes it easy for people to focus on the scandals they see.

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