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Corruption in American Politics Has Long History

Americans were shocked this week by the boldness of the graft and other crimes allegedly committed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which included attempts to sell the vacated U.S. Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. But corruption is nothing new in American politics, although the scope and definitions of corruption have changed over time.

At a press conference in Chicago on Thursday, Obama reacted to the corruption charges against the Illinois governor by stating a stark truth about political power.

"I think in Illinois - as is true in American politics generally - there are two views of politics," Obama said. "There is a view of politics that says you go into this for sacrifice and public service, and there is a view of politics that says, 'This is a business.' And you're wheeling and dealing and 'What's in it for me?'"

Illinois politics is well known for a tendency toward the "what's in it for me" approach and the corruption that can breed. In 2006, the state's previous governor was sent to prison for six and a half years for fraud and other crimes, and according to Slate Magazine, 469 politicians from the federal district of northern Illinois were convicted on corruption charges between 1995 and 2004.

But Columbia University political science professor Justin Phillips says none of their crimes were as egregious as the ones of which Blagojevich has been accused.

"Corruption in American politics has typically been the trading of government contracts or government benefits for, oftentimes, just simply campaign contributions. You know, 'Here is some money into your campaign, and in exchange, you give me and my business a particular contract.' Or, 'I take you to a basketball game, give you some great seats, and in exchange, you give me something my client wants,'" Phillips says. "Those types of exchanges are typically what would we see when we talk about corruption in American politics."

If the exchange of goods and services for money is legitimate in the public marketplace, why is it considered immoral in politics? Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois and the author of several books on state politics and corruption, says politicians are elected or appointed to do the people's business, not their own.

"If they are benefiting personally from bribes, extortions and campaign finance contributions, then they essentially have a conflict of interest," Redfield says. "The question is: are they trying to pursue the public interest to do what's best in terms of their office… or are they shaping policy in ways that guarantee they get the most money?

"So this distorts public policy. And if citizens ultimately believe that everything is for sale and it's corrupt, then they have no reason to support the political system."

Redfield describes Blagojevich's "pay-for-play" politics as a modern-day continuation of the so-called "machine"-style politics that were the norm in big cities like Chicago and New York from the mid-19th century until the 1960s. Machine politicians relied on new immigrants who had little political pull. In exchange for votes, party bosses would give the newcomers jobs once their candidates were put in office, or politicians would take bribes in exchange for ensuring the efficient delivery of city services, like snow or garbage removal, or the granting of lucrative city contracts.

"I guess, in a perverse way, that means if you've got enough resources, you can be ensured that things are going to get done unless somebody outbids you," Redfield says. "But, on the other hand, that's why those systems have problems [in the] long term. That only works for people who have resources, and that generates discontent. Those are the sorts of things that historically lead to political upheaval and revolutions."

On the other hand, says Phillips, political machines were quite effective at practical governance.

"They could get things done. Machines, because of their vast control and their ability to… peddle influence, they got a lot done, where reformist governments in American cities were much less effective. And so the public in cities had a sort of love-hate relationship with the machines."

Ultimately, however, Phillips says legal reforms broke the power of the party machines.

"Number one, the requirements for registering to vote changed. So machines, as soon as immigrants got off the boat, they couldn't register them to vote and bring them into American politics.

"Other reforms made the quid pro quo [the exchange of favors] transactions that machines engaged in illegal. Increased efforts to change the government employment in this country to a civil service system, as opposed to a system where everybody that worked in government was a political appointee.

"So the machine had fewer benefits to dole out. And as machines had fewer benefits, they sort of began to wither and die."

Under American legal principles, Blagojevich is presumed innocent until he is convicted of the crimes prosecutors have alleged. However, the size and scope of the corruption of which has been accused is a reminder. Regardless of the legal sanctions Americans hope will ensure fairness in public life and selflessness in public officials, the temptation to use the public trust for private gain is still a force in American politics.