American Political Corruption Is the Worst It’s Been Since the 19th Century

With the proliferation of favor-trading and the use of public office as a stepping stone to lucrative private gigs, America’s political institutions have become as debased and corrupt as they were in the 1800s.

Representative Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) at a House Financial Services Committee organizational meeting on January 30, 2019. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Last month, the Lever’s Andrew Perez reported on a remarkable exchange during a televised hearing of the House Financial Services Committee. Given five minutes for some comments, the committee’s chair, Representative Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN), addresses Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and thanks him for hiring his own top aide:

Before I get started on my questions Mr. Moynihan, I wanted to let you know that . . . Sruthi, raise your hand, Sruthi. She has been my team member for a couple of years, but [next week], she becomes a Bank of America team member . . . she is very, very excited, so I hope you’ll take good care of her and know and recognize the talent that she has shown already in our office. I’m sure she’ll do the same at Bank of America.

The whole thing is a surreal, if mostly unsurprising glimpse into the kind of banal and open corruption that has become so normalized it no longer even feels the need to hide. Hollingsworth, a longtime friend of the very industry his committee is supposedly charged with overseeing, sounds so chummy with Moynihan the exchange could have just as easily taken place over cocktails or on the golf course. Moynihan’s equally effusive reply — “We’ll do that, and her father already works for us!” — could not have been more perfect if he’d tried. As David Sirota has observed of the incident, what’s notable is not so much the revelation that a Congressional aide employed by an ally of big banks is headed to work for one but rather that the move is being discussed in a public forum stripped of any artifice.

Before the modern state came into existence, the public administration of many countries was often quite openly corrupt. This extended not only to what we now call a civil service but also to elected officeholders and cabinet members as well. The line between favor-trading and allocation of public money was not so much porous as nonexistent, and much of the work of an elected lawmaker consisted of patronage and the strategically motivated distribution of jobs, offices, and opportunities.

Against this political backdrop, nineteenth-century capitalism made many massive fortunes, but much concentrated wealth still retained the residually feudal aura of ex-officio status — inherited, and then transferred, from one generation of nobles to the next. In the modern liberal version, by contrast, wealth and status are more generally viewed as rewards commensurate with moral desert. Public offices, by the same token, are officially expected to maintain independence and avoid conflicts of interest when spending public funds or debating legislation.

We all know, of course, that this isn’t how most high-level public administration works. Patronage and pork barrel spending occur all the time, and moneyed interest groups are typically in a position to exert much greater sway over political institutions than their public interest equivalents. Nonetheless, there’s something uniquely rotten and decadent about doing favor-trading in the open — a reversion to the ethical standards of the Gilded Age if there ever was one.

There’s another parallel to the nineteenth century to be found in this little episode, which is what it says about the subordinate position of the democratic state (and many of those who staff its elected and nonelected offices) in relation to corporate actors. A century and a half ago, the line between public and private often seemed to exist in name only. Today, the border looks similarly eroded — with the added twist that public offices themselves are now frequently mere stepping stones to more lucrative private sinecures.

The Hollingsworth/Moynihan case may be a particularly egregious and shameless example, but plenty of political grifts are more quotidian. Public offices and staffing positions, after all, now come not only with a suite of potential quid pro quos and networking opportunities, but also with greater visibility and exposure — lucrative commodities in themselves that can be traded in when their value has sufficiently inflated.

The upshot is an environment in which serving as a lawmaker or working as a staffer can be a kind of conflict of interest in reverse. Nothing strictly illegal even needs to occur, but those hoping for such a trajectory can adjust their conduct and behavior with it in mind. Sometimes the reward is as banal as a well-paid job opportunity (perhaps at a firm your office was lobbied by or was supposed to be regulating). Sometimes it’s celebrity, a status that appears all the more earned and legitimate if it bears the imprint of “public service.” Media gigs, book deals, and speaking engagements typically follow in due course.

All of this is testament to the fact that grift and corruption have become so embedded and so normalized in America’s political institutions that they are now — or rather again — content to exist in plain sight.