David Graeber in The Democracy Project:
Our government has become little more than a system of institutionalized bribery where you can get hauled off to jail just for saying so.
Even outside the Occupy Wallstreet movement that Graeber details, there is awareness of bribery. Joseph E. Stiglitz in Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%:
Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth. […] Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.
David Graeber in The Democracy Project:
An economic system based on the marriage of government and financial interests, where money is transformed into power, which is then used to make more money again, has come to seem so natural among the core donor groups of both political parties that they have also come to see it as constitutive of reality itself.
This awareness is still mostly ignorant. Fortunately, The Dictator's Handbook (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith) is much clearer in this regard and shows how incentives for rulers are aligned for bribery.
Autocrats can avoid the technical difficulties of gathering and redistributing wealth by authorizing their supporters to reward themselves directly. For many leaders, corruption is not something bad that needs to be eliminated. Rather it is an essential political tool.
Contrary to what Graeber implies, The Dictator's Handbook does not see bribery as a singular phenomenon:
Everyone likes to be liked, and there’s no reason to think that the powerful have anything against being beloved and honored by their people. Indeed, it could well be the case that there are many candidates for high office who pursue power with the intention of being benevolent leaders. The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad for staying in power. […] While they can indulge their desires to do good deeds with any money at their discretion, to come to power, and to survive in office, leaders must rivet their attention on building and maintaining a coalition loyal enough that the ruler can beat back any and all rivals. To do that, leaders must reward their coalition of essential backers before they reward the people in general and even before they reward themselves.
Intuitive and direct action against bribery has not often worked, because power does not surrender:
Most people think that reducing corruption is a desirable goal. One common approach is to pass additional legislation and increase sentences for corruption. Unfortunately such approaches are counterproductive. When a system is structured around corruption, everyone who matters, leaders and backers alike, are tarred by that corruption. They would not be where they were if they had not had their hand in the till at some point. Increasing sentences simply provides leaders with an additional tool with which to enforce discipline. It is all too common for reformers and whistle-blowers to be prosecuted for one reason or another.
As political leadership cannot exist without power, we need to engineer rules that keep leaders' incentives in line with our own:
Politicians can introduce all sorts of legislation and administrations to seek out and prosecute corruption. This looks good to the voters. But such measures are either a façade behind which it is business as usual, or they are designed as a weapon to be used against political opponents. Neither a smokescreen nor a witch hunt will root out sleaze. But make political leaders accountable to more people and politics becomes a competition for good ideas, not bribes and corruption. There are indeed clues that we need to hold politicians more accountable. As PolitiFact reports, more than half of Donald Trump's public statements are verifiably false.
To challenge politicians on what they are saying, we will also have to stop using Orwellian euphemisms at some point. As David Graeber points out, money is a striking example where political language legitimises questionable practices:
Now soliciting bribes has been relabeled “fund-raising” and bribery itself, “lobbying.” Banks rarely need to ask for specific favors if politicians, dependent on the flow of bank money to finance their campaigns, are already allowing bank lobbyists to shape or even write the legislation that is supposed to “regulate” their banks. At this point, bribery has become the very basis of our system of government.
Recommended reading: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith – The Dictator's Handbook
Recommended watching: CGP Grey – The Rules for Rulers