Friday, January 06, 2017

Political Corruption: As American (and Canadian) as Apple Pie

      Samuel P. Orth. The Boss and the Machine (1919) A brief but thorough and depressing history of the fraud, malfeasance, deceit, self-serving, bribery, theft, office jobbing, graft, and general corruption that has marked American politics at every level from the beginning of the Republic.
     The Founders were afraid both of a strong executive and of mob rule, so they built a system in which the legislature and executive were intended to act as checks on each other. This pretty well guarantees backroom deals. Couple that with the two-year cycle of elections, and it was inevitable that the Party machine would become the de facto source of power.
     Oligarchy is the natural form of American polity. Public office has always been seen as primarily a method of guaranteeing employment and enrichment for oneself, one’s cronies, and one’s sponsors. To quote one of our Prime Ministers: “You gotta dance with the one that brung you.” Elections are about which faction of the 1% will get their turn at the trough.
     Orth wrote at a time (about 100 years ago) when political reform movements were able to clean up the worst messes. He clearly believed that US politics would be saner and more public spirited in the 20th century. History has proven him wrong. The reform movements tended to disband once they had achieved their goals, and the Party machines inevitably moved back in. They have become more sophisticated and skilled at shifting public opinion, and less blatant in their greed. The rulers keep themselves out of the public eye more skilfully, but their goals are the same as they have always been: Put into place a compliant legislature, and move money from the taxpayers' into their own pockets. In short, the elected politicians are a front for the ruling class.
     It took me a while to read the book, in part because Orth writes a chronicle, not an analysis, but mostly because the story is such a drearily depressing one. The Party machine also dominates Canadian politics, but with a more polite and superficially less brutal style.
     Has there been a general improvement in politics? Perhaps. Corruption is not as blatant as it used to be, but that is more a change in style than in substance. Good book. Should be available in any University library. ***

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