DELMAR — Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who literally wrote the book on corruption in American government, is writing a new book — this time, about patriotism. Talking to a library full of Bethlehem High School students and faculty on Tuesday, Feb. 28, she said that losing two political races and witnessing the recent chaos in our nation’s capital hasn’t diminished her enthusiasm for the best ideals this country represents.
“My idea of patriotism,” she said, noting that her opinion on the topic does not represent an ironclad truth, “is that we love and honor the best ideas of our country and we have a special obligation to the people in this country and, as citizens, to be a part of — on a daily basis — rebuilding the country that we live in.”
While the majority of Teachout’s talk that evening was focused on the problems of money and corruption in government, she also encouraged students to become involved in the political process and eventually consider running for office. “It’s worse than you think,” she said of the level of corruption they could expect to encounter. “At the same time, politics is one of the most fun, interesting, strange, complex, eccentric things you will ever do.”
“Professor Teachout’s presentation and visit on Tuesday, opened my eyes to the extent of the current corruption that is occurring in our state government as well as within the federal government,” said Bethlehem senior Sophie Ayers, president of Students for Peace and Survival (SPAS), the student-run organization that invited Teachout to come speak. Ayers said that Teachout inspired her to believe that she could make a difference, “and advocate for the ideas and policies that I would like to see.”
Teachout spoke at length about the Emoluments Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which states that no person holding federal office can take presents or payments from foreign governments. She enumerated four ways in which she feels President Donald Trump is in violation of that clause, which, until the Trump administration, has rarely been invoked and has never been considered by any Supreme Court.
“They were really worried about corruption,” she said of the original framers of the U.S. Constitution. “One of their biggest fears was that foreign countries would use their leverage to try to influence American trade policy.”
Teachout said that Trump is compromised by his ties with the Chinese government, who rent space in Trump Tower. “That contract is going to be renegotiated in 2019,” she said, “and the Chinese government is going to be in a position to make our president richer or poorer.” The foreign dignitaries and ambassadors that stay in his hotels represent another violation of the emoluments clause, said Teachout, as well as his television shows, which are often purchased by foreign governments.
“And the fourth way that our president is getting payments from foreign
governments,” she said, “is that the Trump organization has development projects all over the world: In India, in Saudi Arabia, in China, in Turkey. And in all of those countries, the government can either deny permits or allow permits and that’s worth a lot of money.”
Teachout also spoke in favor of campaign finance reform and overturning the Citizens United decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as her opposition to monopolistic corporations and her views on the fundamentals of free markets.
According to to Connor Chung, SPAS treasurer and coordinator of its speaker series “Our Community Our World,” speakers are brought in to speak to students and faculty members about once a month, and have included Albany County District Attorney David Soares and Times Union Editor Rex Smith.
“SPAS looks for speakers who reflect our club’s understanding of the importance of getting students involved and engaged when it comes to matters of equality and social justice,” Chung explained, noting that there is no budget to pay these speakers — they volunteer their time and expertise.
“No matter where one stands on political issues, we can all agree that a system in which our politicians are beholden to a select few is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “That is why we decided to invite Professor Teachout — she is nationally recognized as a (if not the) leading voice when it comes to money and accountability in politics. We are incredibly grateful that she was willing to spend the time she did — including the unplanned additional 45 minutes of Q and A!”
“Ms. Teachout’s visit really increased my awareness on what happens behind closed doors in the political world,” said senior Jana Bergere, SPAS secretary. “She made me realize I need to hold my politicians accountable and how grassroots efforts are a major part of this. All the students in the room, including myself, became inspired to push for change in the status quo now and in the future.”
After speaking for approximately half an hour, Teachout opened up the floor for questions.
One of the first questions, asked by a student named Kevin, was about how to navigate a “post-truth society” where “alternative facts” and the echo chambers of the internet can make it difficult to discern objective truth. “It’s a very complicated, hard question,” she said. “Some of it has to do with supporting public education, understanding that history in schools plays an incredibly important role.”
Ultimately, she said, “As citizens, you have an obligation to spend time seeking out truthful information about your local and national politics. It’s not just going to land in your lap.”
Teachout commended the students for their thoughtful questions and evident passion. “I believe that public education is the infrastructure of democracy,” she said. “You can’t separate the two.”