The Corrupting of New York City

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I also recognized myself as the typical “good” citizen whom Lincoln Steffens described in The Shame of the Cities —the honest, harried businessman who has “no use and therefore no time for politics.” When the neglect of this citizen “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.”

Such an attitude leads to the “standard course of municipal reform,” in which politicians “are permitted to organize a party … take over the government, corrupt and deceive the people, and run things for the private profit of the boss and his ring, till the corruption becomes rampant and a scandal.” Then good citizens unite, “make a ‘hot campaign’ against the government with ‘Stop, thief!’ for the cry, and make a ‘clean sweep.’ ” In the end this clean sweep accomplishes nothing more than the “disciplining of the reckless grafters and the improvement of the graft system of corrupt government.”

The people of New York City, Steffens said, had sold their sovereignty for “kindness and petty privileges.” They had allowed their sovereignty to be “gathered up … cheaply, like garbage. …” The rule of Tammany means “corruption with consent.” The machine governs “by right of the votes of the people of New York. Tammany corruption is democratic corruption.”

 

Steffens dedicated The Shame of the Cities “to the accused—to all the citizens of all the cities in the United States.” “Do we Americans really want good government?” he asked. Would we know it if we saw it? Once the latest scandal has run its course, when we are left “with nothing but mild approval and dull duty to impel us,” are we willing to shoulder the “unwelcome duties” of our citizenship?

Municipal corruption raises, of course, the grand question of governance in a democracy. We claim to cherish self-government. Except in a crisis of rare magnitude, however, wouldn’t we prefer not to be bothered? Aren’t we content to leave politics to the professionals? Isn’t corruption in government the price that we pay—and pay gladly—for the privilege of washing our hands of the whole difficult and discouraging affair?

No one has put the problem in sharper perspective than Lincoln Steffens. Reform movements that concentrate on “turning the rascals out” miss the point, he said. “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people. … The boss is not a political, he is an American institution, the product of a freed people that have not the spirit to be free.”

After more than eighty years, that taunt still stings.