Political corruption
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Political corruption
Progressive Era
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In the 18th century, political corruption all started when governors used their position to enrich themselves. The definition of political corruption is the abuse of government power through bribery, intimidation, and destabilization, in order to get money. In other words, government officials exchange favors in return for personal gain. There are a couple examples of taking part in political corruption. The most common form is bribery, payment of money in order to receive favorable treatment. Another example is patronage, favoring supporter’s government employment. One dealing with votes is called electoral fraud, messing up vote counts by increasing the vote score of your favorite candidate. This actually took place during the 2000 Presidential election, Bush against Gore. George W. Bush won the election because Florida’s voting system messed up. As political corruption increases, the effect on that is losing the trust in political officials and the general public. The main issue is that it makes politicians rich, and citizens poor.

 

Lincoln Steffens is a muckraker who was the editor of McClure’s magazine. The purpose of this magazine was for muckrakers to search and publish scandalous information about famous people. So Steffens decided to go and find information about political corruption. He set out and traveled from city to city to see why the world was so corrupt. During his journey, he discovered people using money for useless things. First stop was St. Louis, where the first article was published about the “Tweed Days”. It focused on child labor, prions, religion, and companies in St. Louis. In Minneapolis, he found people defending grafters. In Chicago, he found people deploring reform. Lastly in New York, he found the beating of good government with corruption funds. All of these issues were put into a book called “The Shame of the Cities”. The main reason Steffen published this book was because he wanted to show how people were being betrayed and deceived, living in awful conditions, and surviving off of tainted food and water. When all the puzzle pieces were put together, he discovered the typical businessman—a bad citizen, caused all this political corruption. “If people would stop voting for which party, or for which man is better, but for the city, and the state, and the nation, the world would be a better place.”

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Progressive Era documents

Lincoln Steffens, excerpt from The Shame of the Cities (1904)

Now, the typical American citizen is the business man. The typical business man is a bad citizen; he is busy. If he is a "big business man" and very busy, he does not neglect, he is busy with politics, oh, very busy and very businesslike. I found him buying boodlers in St. Louis, defending grafters in Minneapolis, originating corruption in Pittsburgh, sharing with bosses in Philadelphia, deploring reform in Chicago, and beating good government with corruption funds in New York. He is a self-righteous fraud, this big business man. He is the chief source of corruption, and it were a boon if he would neglect politics. But he is not the business man that neglects politics; that worthy is the good citizen, the typical business man. He too is busy, he is the one that has no use and therefore no time for politics. When his neglect has permitted bad government to go so far that he can be stirred to action, he is unhappy, and he looks around for a cure that shall be quick, so that he may hurry back to the shop.

Naturally, too, when he talks politics, he talks shop. His patent remedy is quack; it is business. "Give us a business man," he says ("like me," he means). "Let him introduce business methods into politics and government; then I shall be left alone to attend to my business." There is hardly an office from United States Senator down to Alderman in any part of the country to which the business man has not been elected; yet politics remains corrupt, government pretty bad, and the selfish citizen has to hold himself in readiness like the old volunteer firemen to rush forth at any hour, in any weather, to prevent the fire; and he goes out sometimes and he puts out the fire (after the damage is done) and he goes back to the shop sighing for the business man in politics. The business man has failed in politics as he has in citizenship. Why? Because politics is business.

That's what's the matter with it. That's what's the matter with everything, -- art, literature, religion, journalism, law, medicine, -- they're all business, and all -- as you see them. Make politics a sport, as they do in England, or a profession, as they do in Germany, and we'll have -- well, something else than we have now, -- if we want it, which is another question. But don't try to reform politics with the banker, the lawyer, and the dry-goods merchant...

But there is hope, not alone despair, in the commercialism of our politics. If our political leaders are to be always a lot of political merchants, they will supply any demand we may create. All we have to do is to establish a steady demand for good government...

If we would leave parties to the politicians, and would vote not for the party, not even for men, but for the city, and the State, and the nation, we should rule parties, and cities, and States, and nation. If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other parry that is in -- then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it. That process would take a generation or more to complete, for the politicians now really do not know what good government is. But it has taken as long to develop bad government, and the politicians know what that is. If it would not "go," they would offer something else, and, if the demand were steady, they, being so commercial, would "deliver the goods."

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Vocabulary

BOODLE: Money spent illegally or improperly

 

MUCKRAKER: Searching out and publicizing scandalous information about famous people

 

BRIBERY: To persuade someone to act in one’s favor

 

PATRONAGE: The Right to privileges

 

CORRUPTION: Being dishonest by those in power

 

POLITICIANS: A person who is professionally involved in politics

 

CONSOLIDATED: Combining something into a smaller amount

 

BETRAYED: Expose something to danger by treacherously giving information to an enemy

 

MONOPOLIES: Company controls an entire industry

 

APHORISMS: A pithy observation that contains general truth

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Lincoln Steffens Thoughts

No one had ever done journalism like this before. McClure’s took on corporate monopolies and political machines, the awful conditions most Americans lived and worked in, the tainted food and water they ate and drank. The public devoured it, even while claiming to want more “positive” stories. 

Steffens wanted to go beyond the simple idea “that political evils were due to bad men of some sort and curable by the substitution of good men.” Working constantly, traveling ceaselessly, he visited one city after another, trying to decipher how the whole system worked — why it was corrupt, as well as how. He brought to the job a penetrating intelligence, a great human sympathy and a knack for turning a phrase; whole books could be filled with his aphorisms: “I was never again mistaken for an honest man by a crook”; “You ask men in office to be honest, I ask them to serve the public”; “Nothing fails like success”; “You cannot commit rape a little.”

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The Shame of the Cities

When I set out to describe the corrupt systems of certain typical cities, I meant to show simply how the people were deceived and betrayed. But in the very first study—St. Louis—the startling truth lay bare that corruption was not merely political; it was financial, commercial, social; the ramifications of boodle were so complex, various, and far-reaching, that one mind could hardly grasp them, and not even Joseph W. Folk, the tireless prosecutor, could follow them all. This state of things was indicated in the first article which Claude H. Wetmore and I compiled together, but it was not shown plainly enough. Mr. Wetmore lived in St. Louis, and he had respect for names which meant little to me, but when I went next to Minneapolis alone, I could see more independently, without respect for persons, and there were traces of the same phenomenon. The first St. Louis article was called “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” and though the “better citizen” received attention the Tweeds were the center of interest. In “The Shame of Minneapolis,” the truth was put into the title; it was the Shame of Minneapolis; not of the Ames administration, not of the Tweeds, but of the city and its citizens. And yet Minneapolis was not nearly so bad as St. Louis; police graft is never so universal as boodle. It is more shocking, but it is so filthy that it cannot involve so large a part of society. So I returned to St. Louis, and I went over the whole ground again, with the people in mind, not alone the caught and convicted boodles. And this time the true meaning of “Tweed Days in St. Louis” was made plain. The article was called “The Shamelessness of St. Louis,” and that was the burden of the story. In Pittsburgh also the people was the subject, and though the civic spirit there was better, the extent of the corruption throughout the social organization of the community was indicated. But it was not till I got to Philadelphia that the possibilities of popular corruption were worked out to the limit of humiliating confession. That was the place for such a study. There is nothing like it in the country, except possibly, in Cincinnati. Philadelphia certainly is not merely corrupt, but corrupted, and this was made clear. Philadelphia was charged up to—the American citizen.

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Corrupt and Contented | Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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In May 1903,  journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote that municipal corruption in Philadelphia was worse than any other place he had investigated. 

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