By Nara Pavão*
Brazil very recently hosted the trial of the century, in which important politicians were accused of, and convicted for, their involvement in a large-scale corruption scandal allegedly concocted by some of the most important politicians of the Workers’ Party (PT). The scheme supposedly consisted of the exchange of legislative support for a big monthly payment. This unprecedented event – the trial and conviction of the nation’s foremost politicians – has brought the topic of corruption to the center of public debate. Although the Supreme Court has convicted these politicians, not all citizens who have thoughtfully assessed the case agree with the ruling. The unique nature of the judgment, a singular case in the juridical history of the country, has generated controversy and disagreement, a clear indication that interpretations of information about corruption are not as homogenous or simplistic as some would have us believe. While some Brazilians were persuaded by the information surrounding the scandal—accusations, media reports, and proper evidence—other citizens were skeptical of this information and continued to believe in the innocence of the politicians.
When investigating what leads voters to take action against corrupt politicians, the rather scarce literature on the topic, generated primarily from the field of political science, calls attention to the notion of a lack of information: voters support corrupt politicians because they lack sufficient information about these politicians’ misdeeds. The reality is, however, far more complex. From the standpoint of voting behavior, we should expect a more multifaceted account of attitude formation. Why should information about politicians’ involvement in corruption automatically translate into negative attitudes toward corrupt politicians? What if individuals have different levels of tolerance for corruption? What if they interpret information about corruption differently, becoming more or less likely to be persuaded to believe in the accusation?
Because ready availability of information is referred to as an “antidote” to political corruption (Winters, Testa, and Fredrickson 2012), little is known about what induces voters to make informed decisions to support corrupt politicians. Similarly, we know very little about how information about corruption translates into attitudes toward corruption. We know even less about the factors that may moderate the impact of information about corruption on individuals’ attitudes.
Opinion data from Brazil offers us some basis to begin thinking more comprehensively about the question of tolerance toward corruption and about the real role of information in leading citizens to adopt less tolerant attitudes toward corruption.
As we begin thinking in this vein, we should consider one surprising finding: the percentage of survey respondents who admit that they tolerate corruption is striking, particularly if we consider that social desirability bias is affecting their answers (the socially desirable attitude is to not tolerate corruption).
Furthermore, according to an opinion poll conducted in 2005 in Brazil, those who sympathize with the Workers Party tend to be more informed about the corruption accusations against their preferred party; nevertheless, they are precisely the ones who believe that there is less corruption in Lula’s government than evidenced. According to the same data, information about corruption (both awareness about the corruption scandals and the extent to which the individual is informed about the scandals) does not predict citizens’ tolerance for corruption.
Inconclusive though it may be, this data should stimulate us to think more about attitudes toward corruption not only in Brazil but elsewhere. The challenge is to move the debate beyond lack of information to the problem of how citizens react to corruption and the extent to which they are willing to take action against corrupt politicians. Perhaps disseminating information about corruption and increasing transparency—initiatives perceived as essential to good governance—are not the sole antidotes to corruption in politics. Rather, the remedy may depend on something we still lack: a comprehensive understanding of citizens’ real attitudes toward corruption and how information about corruption scandals impact such attitudes.