ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PUBLIC POLICY LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR is a historian whose research examines race, politics, the presidency, and civil rights. She is currently researching incidents of political corruption in the 1980s, including a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) scandal where federal funds for low-income housing were misappropriated and siphoned off to politically connected consultants and developers.
Q: The scandal was big news at the time but is largely forgotten now. Why is that?
Most people dismissed the corruption in HUD as it was happening because it affected the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in the United States, namely poor people, working-class people, and African Americans. Those affected groups were quite vocal about corruption and exploitation, and about the alarming disappearance of funding and resources for public housing. But all too often, the reaction from the public and politicians was that poverty was a moral failing, and that if people were poor, it was because they deserved it.
Q: How does political corruption from that era affect us today?
It ended up doing damage to the poor and working class across the nation in ways that are institutionalized and embedded in the very structure of government. There are a number of red flags now that we should pay attention to: the lack of transparency, the lack of oversight, the increase in political nepotism, and the rejection of expertise in the realm of policy.
Q: So how can we respond to problems in government now?
There are a number of ways to begin to address the issues—increased transparency, oversight, and accountability in government, for example. Political nepotism, coupled with lack of oversight and general disregard of or contempt for a robust social safety net is a recipe for corruption. Rooting that out is key. Additionally, grassroots resistance is key. We’ve seen the kind of impact that resistance efforts, such as the movement for black lives, have had on significant social and policy issues. We’re actually seeing a lot in terms of activism and protest. The question is whether politicians are listening.
Q: What should politicians be attentive to?
For far too long, black voters have been treated as a monolithic group because of their partisanship, but that actually obscures a rich, complex, and nuanced world underneath that has really important implications for democracy in the United States. For politicians who want to be elected, understanding black voters is really important. Over the last few election cycles, black voters have been instrumental in determining political outcomes.
Q: What lessons from previous elections are relevant to 2020?
If you have a real understanding that democracy is not something that is a given—even in a country like the United States—then you can understand and contextualize moments like the 2016 election and have a sense of urgency about 2020. It is key that the Kennedy School, as the world’s leading school of government, is at the forefront of providing a cohesive narrative about what is at stake in 2020 in terms of democracy, in terms of race, in terms of politics, and in terms of policy.
Portrait by Martha Stewart