Corruption is as American as apple pie.

“The quality of government is seriously compromised when decisions made by elected politicians benefit those who funded their ascent to power,” says the anti-corruption watch-dog group Transparency International.

That sounds like just another U.S. election campaign.

Some eras are worse than others. Historians say the post-Civil War period was America’s most corrupt, with the 1920s-1930s a close runner up. We’re now caught in a third wave of entrenched influence-peddling and crony capitalism.



After the Civil War, railroads ruled the United States. Notorious amid the “robber barons,” partners Jay Gould and James Fisk got rich in railroad stock manipulation, then bribed President Ulysses Grant’s brother-in-law and a Treasury Department official to help them corner the gold market. They drove prices up, and in the chaos of the crash, they made some profits but refused to pay any debts.

Accused of fraud, flamboyant “Big Jim” Fisk cheerfully replied, “Nothing lost save honor.” He was 36 when he was killed by his mistress’s other lover.

During the Roaring ’20s, Big Oil virtually ran our government. In the Teapot Dome scandal, the era’s signature outrage, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall received kickbacks for leasing Navy petroleum reserves without competitive bidding. The unenforceable prohibition on alcohol consumption also corrupted every level of government. Big business dominated the government until the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression ushered in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s populist policies.

These epochs of extravagant graft and bribery have much in common. They closely followed major wars. They coincided with periods of great concentration of wealth from bubbles enabled by “business-friendly” governments. The first two subsided when recessions exposed the cost of business gone wild, and reform movements regulated corporate power.

Today, corporations are in command again. Experts expect the 2012 electoral campaigns to cost more than $6 billion. This will keep client politicians dialing their corporate patrons for dollars and promising business-friendly policies. In 2011, finance, insurance, and real estate companies gave Mitt Romney $7.7 million and Obama $4.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Military contractors are close behind, along with the health insurance companies that spent big shaping the Affordable Care Act.

These are America’s new overlords. Big campaign donations make smart investments for crony capitalists. Deregulation and lax oversight have brought billions in profits and tax breaks to financiers, even while the Great Recession has stripped $7 trillion from American household wealth. Unless it’s overturned with a constitutional amendment, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (which enabled corporations to make unlimited political contributions) will stand.

U.S. corruption has become too big to measure. It’s the new normal.

How can the 99 percent respond? The dark humor of the oppressed has historically made it easier to bear.

“I think I can say and say with pride that we have some legislators that command higher prices than any in the world.” Mark Twain quipped in the 1870s. “We have the best government that money can buy,” Twain also said. “The best thing about this group of candidates is that only one of them can win,” Will Rogers observed half a century later.

Today people get that kind of relief from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show or when they watch Stephen Colbert poke fun at Super PACs. “I couldn’t afford a politician, so I bought this sign,” read a Mississippian’s sign in Occupy Tupelo.

But corruption isn’t funny. Bad governments create economic instability, at a terrible human cost. Dollar democracy can turn people off of politics, even knowing that when voters become alienated, the worst politicians will get elected.

We laugh to keep from crying for our democracy.

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Tim Butterworth

Tim Butterworth, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, is a former teacher, union negotiator and New Hampshire state representative.
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