Compared with the cast of characters from the Gilded Age, Nagin’s brand of corruption seems tame. He solicited bribes from businessmen in exchange for city contracts and favorable treatment. Through direct cash payments and gifts such as plane tickets, prosecutors totaled the bribes up to $200,000 dating back to 2004. The businesses that made the payments were rewarded with over $5 million in city contracts. At Nagin’s trial, those same businessmen who were already convicted of bribery rewarded Nagin with testimony against him. The conviction certainly changes Nagin’s legacy from a mayor who led the city through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath to one of yet another politician who chose self-interest over public interest.
While the corruption of the Gilded Age provides historical comparisons, finding examples of corrupt city politicians doesn’t require stepping too far back in time. Less than a week before Nagin was convicted, Mayor Tony Mack of Trenton, NJ was convicted of six counts of bribery, fraud, and extortion. Among other evidence against Mack, prosecutors charged him with selling city property under market value in exchange for cash payments. Mack is not the only recent example; in New Jersey alone, nine other mayors have pleaded guilty or been convicted of corruption since 2000.
In response to the exposure of a politician’s corruption, there is a familiar pattern. Outrage is followed by the desire to find an outside candidate who will reject “politics as usual” and reform the system. This pattern relies on the assumption that corruption is merely the result of a bad actor and all that is needed to avoid corruption is an honest outsider. How then can New Orleans rebound from Nagin’s fall considering he originally ran for mayor as a reform-minded outsider? Fortunately, there is an alternate conception of political corruption put forth by Steffens in The Shame of the Cities that does not view citizens has helpless victims. Instead, Steffens saw citizens as complicit in politicians’ crimes, saying, “the corruption that shocks us in public affairs we practice ourselves in our private concerns.” In this context, a politician accepting a bribe is akin to John Q. Public slipping a maitre d’ a few bucks to get seated more quickly. The Minneapolis Tribune expressed a similar sentiment when analyzing Ames’s crimes, admitting, “All of us are accomplices in the things he did, by active assistance in putting him in office and contributory negligence in relations to his acts for a year and a half.”
Therefore, rather than reading of Nagin’s and Mack’s crimes and being relieved to live elsewhere, or reading history and marveling at what politicians got away with in a time long ago, we should examine our politicians and ourselves. Steffens accused corrupt politicians of turning democracy into oligarchy, but perhaps the trouble is really that corrupt politicians are perfectly representative of their constituents. After all, despite engaging in actions resembling those of leaders of real oligarchies, corrupt politicians are ultimately elected and re-elected. Steffens provides the clear solution: citizens must live ethically, vote for the more promising candidate, and vote out any politician who falls short because only then “the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.”
How much blame do you think citizens deserve for the corruption of politics? Leave a comment.