Why Uprooting Corruption Has Plunged Brazil Into Chaos

But corruption’s roots run so deep in Brazil that, like a tree as old as the garden it grows in, uprooting it can cause tremendous upheaval.

Mr. da Silva’s once unthinkable decline is just one expression of the turmoil reaching across Brazil.

A stunning number of establishment political figures have been implicated, leaving the world’s fifth most populous country with few credible leaders. Political infighting and public distrust are skyrocketing. So is polarization, as citizens increasingly blame the other side for their country’s problems.

On the one hand, all this suggests that long-overdue efforts to remove corruption, while painful, are working. On the other hand, these political traumas can bring unintended consequences. Analysts see worrying parallels to Italy just before Silvio Berlusconi’s rise or even Venezuela before Hugo Chávez.

Political corruption, the political economist Miriam Golden and the economist Ray Fisman have written, is a kind of equilibrium. It spreads by incorporating every actor and institution, who become invested in maintaining it. Upending that equilibrium can destabilize everything it once touched, a process whose resolution is impossible to predict.

Hollowing Out a Rotting System

Corruption can act like a parallel system that runs alongside or even replaces formal legal and political practices.

This system is illegal for a reason. It siphons public funds into the pockets of a few, circumvents checks and balances and undermines the rule of law.

But it also becomes a way for citizens and politicians to manage the day to day. In Russia, for instance, the underfunded health care system limps along on bribery, allowing patients access to care that might otherwise not exist and doctors to stay in the profession.

Given enough time, such practices naturally metastasize across institutions.

“You can’t just change the behavior of a few people at a time,” Mr. Fisman said. “You have to…

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