MANY Americans regard the practice of politics - persuasion, influence, compromise, decisionmaking - as corrupt. In so doing they make reform more difficult.
Ask any talk-show audience and they'll tell you that everyone and everything in Washington is up for sale. Not only do members of Congress accept campaign contributions from political-action committees and lobbyists prowl the halls, but members of the White House staff steal towels from the Navy!
Corruption is serious business. Where contracts are being ``skimmed'' or decisions bought and sold, we ought to be worried. But citizens of nations like Zaire, Italy, Russia, and Brazil might wonder why we're so upset about a White House golf outing, when they have seen corruption that shakes societies to their roots.
What's going on here is not some sudden upsurge in venality nor merely a symptom of post-cold-war malaise. It is the result of deep forces in our political culture. We are both puritans and go-getters, institutional tinkerers and inheritors of revolutionary dreams. We like the rough-and-tumble competition of private interests but also dwell upon virtue and redemption.
We dislike government yet expect it to be perfected. We play with the rules, weakening leaders and fragmenting institutions, then wonder why they are so vulnerable. What we are doing is taking the politics out of politics.
There is no way government can be orderly and coherent or work at all without the exercise of power. Nor can it be made pure. Opening up the process - a curious demand since ours is among the most ``open'' democracies - doesn't automatically put power in the hands of everyday citizens. It rewards the organized, the well-represented, and the informed.
Officials and scholars concerned with corruption in the developing world are increasingly looking at ways to encourage and protect the participation of citizens and private interests in public life. Historically this makes sense. Limits on power only began to emerge when somebody other than numero uno had enough clout to make demands he could not ignore. Moreover, where private interests are active they can watch each other, helping to enforce the rules they accept as important.
That process doesn't look much like the view of politics found in civics books. It is often disorderly, and virtue usually has little to do with it. After all, it's politics. But it is the way people protect their interests and pursue their visions of society. And while the knowledgeable and active are not always winners, they are usually not abused.
We would do well to learn that lesson ourselves. We have only moderate levels of participation and even lower levels of engagement. We campaign with emotional ``hits'' on symbolized problems that have little to do with governing. After a while voters notice that while the faces and symbols change, the problems hang around year after year. They grow weary of what they see as empty choices.
Political revival means looking beneath the symbols and coming to terms with power and influence. Without them, no politician can ever be expected to set an agenda or deliver on a promise. It means becoming engaged participants who can play the system and its many points of access to advantage, and who can understand the connections between political cause and effect.
It means participating in state and local politics, organizations, and off-year elections, rather than expecting presidential elections to reshape national life. It means valuing politics while holding realistic views as to what it can be expected to produce.
No neat package of reforms will bring about such a revival. Changing our political culture over the long term would do much to dispel the view that everything and everyone is up for sale. It might even inhibit real corrupt dealings as well. When former mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley, never a reform favorite, said, ``Good politics is good government,'' he might have been onto something. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.