Anne Applebaum: Want to revive the political center? Fight corruption

(Dana Verkouteren | The Associated Press) This courtroom sketch shows Paul Manafort listening to U.S. District court Judge T.S. Ellis III at federal court in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Manafort, the longtime political operative who for months led Donald Trump's winning presidential campaign, was found guilty of eight financial crimes in the first trial victory of the special counsel investigation into the president's associates. A judge declared a mistrial on 10 other counts the jury could not agree on.

Is the political center a lost cause? Look around the map of what we are accustomed to calling the "West," and that's how it seems. Right now, both the radical left and the radical right are on the rise. In Britain, the Labour Party is now led by an old-fashioned Marxist with an unapologetic anti-Semitic streak; in Germany, a proto-fascist political party that wants a reassessment of Germany's wartime role controls 13 percent of Parliament. In the upcoming Swedish elections next week, the far right is expected to do well, too, for the first time since World War II. In the United States, John McCain's patriotic internationalism has lost out, within his own Republican Party, to the isolationism and white nationalism of President Donald Trump.

In contrast to these energized extremists, the “old” center-left and center-right can seem flat and dull, nothing more than defenders of the status quo. Some are simply at sea; others, struggling to redefine themselves, are trying to peddle milder versions of the far right’s racism. France’s Emmanuel Macron is an exception, but he redefined the center only by inventing a new political party — not an option available to everyone.

Here's an alternate idea: Change the subject. Centrists, and genuine democrats, should stop talking about immigration, race and Muslims, all issues blown well out of proportion by tabloids. The French have told pollsters that they think about 1 in 3 of their countrymen is Muslim; the real number is 7.5 percent; Italians think the number is nearly 1 in 5; the real number is 3.7 percent. Even Americans, on average, think that 17 percent of their countrymen are Muslim. The real number is less than 1 percent.

The Western mainstream — which is the majority — should instead unite around the real issues that are actually distorting our politics and our economy: political corruption, money-laundering, and the tax havens and shell companies that allow a few people to remove a lot of money from our countries and to hide it, sometimes literally, on Caribbean islands. Though these are all separate subjects, they are connected. We have learned, in the course of the Paul Manafort trial, of the deep connections between dirty money and political corruption, how one was used to finance the other. We have also learned, in the course of the Trump presidency, how easy it is for rich and well-connected people to defy the rule of law.

What we haven’t focused on, yet, is how these actions hurt ordinary people. Thanks to tax frauds such as Manafort, there is less revenue for the government to spend on roads and schools. Thanks to men such as Trump, who routinely cheated his suppliers and broke labor laws, workplaces are more dangerous and small businesses falter. And because we have allowed the real estate markets in large Western cities to become vast storehouses for money stolen from Russia and Africa, ordinary workers can’t afford houses and life is more expensive for everyone. In “Moneyland,” a book to be published next this week, British journalist Oliver Bullough describes the direct links between the ludicrous wealth on display in New York and London and the impoverishment of societies all across Africa and Asia - all enabled by Western financial institutions. We have created this system — and we can end it.

Some are taking steps in this direction: Elizabeth Warren is absolutely right to focus on political corruption and to propose laws restricting lobbying and the misuse of money in politics. But why stop there? Why can't we also have a "law-and-order ticket" that demands longer prison sentences for white-collar fraudsters? Over the past decade, the number of government investigations into white-collar crime has actually dropped. Can't we reverse that trend?

Any serious anti-corruption, anti-fraud platform should also have an international angle, because the spread of corruption in the United States is part of a larger sickness that now afflicts the entire Western alliance. Jointly, the United States, Britain, Germany, France, the rest of Europe — as well as Japan and Australia — are now locked in a real, life-and-death struggle against international kleptocracy. All of our political systems are now vulnerable to Russian and Chinese bribery and influence-buying. All of our online media is now the target of full-time political manipulation.

To preserve our democracies and maintain rule of law we need to push back, as allies, using not just sanctions but also new laws limiting — or eliminating — the use of tax havens and the broader money-laundering toolkit. It’s not a coincidence that so much of the newly energetic far-right depends either on Russian money or Russian propaganda, or that so many of its members are steeped in corruption: They have successfully turned the attention of law enforcement in multiple countries away from themselves or their cronies. Instead, they have focused anger and resentment on a “refugee crisis” that has been blown well out of proportion.

Of course, we can’t reverse this trend while Trump is the American president, and there are a number of European governments — in Italy and Hungary, to start with — that are keen to maintain their links with international kleptocrats, too. But that’s exactly why we need an international coalition of radical, energized, angry democratic centrists to get rid of them. Starting now.