If you’ve lived in Philadelphia for any significant amount of time, you’ve likely heard Lincoln Steffens’ famous description of the city as “corrupt and contented.”

Steffens, a pioneer of what was called muckraking journalism, christened Philadelphia as such in his 1904 book, “The Shame of the Cities.” In the book, Steffens collected a series of articles he had written for McClure’s magazine that exposed the workings of early 20th century political machines. But the corruption of city officials wasn’t the sole concern of Steffens. Equally to blame for the corruption he found in these cities, he argued, were city residents who tolerated that corruption and failed to do anything to curb it.

Those citizens, who Steffens described as “shameless” (a favorite adjective of his), were accomplices to public corruption by ignoring politics all together. He believed, however, that the public could be moved to action.

“We Americans may have failed,” he wrote. “We may be mercenary and selfish. Democracy with us may be impossible and corruption inevitable, but these articles, if they have proved nothing else, have demonstrated beyond doubt that we can stand the truth; that there is pride in the character of American citizenship; and that this pride may be a power in the land.”

More than 110 years later, when looking at the state of government in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, it looks like he may have been wrong.

In both the city and in the state, there is no corner of government that appears to be relatively corruption free. In just the last few months, we’ve seen indictments of U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah for using campaign funds, charities he created and federal grant funds he controlled to bankroll a failed 2007 Philadelphia mayoral bid, and Attorney General Kathleen Kane for illegally leaking confidential information, then lying about it under oath. We learned that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is being investigated by the FBI. Last week, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report of an investigation of widespread overtime abuses by workers at the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Yesterday, we learned that former state Liquor Control Board head James H. Short Jr. will likely plead guilty to federal charges that he accepted bribes.

Investigations and charges are so routine they could probably be compiled in a lengthy daily synopsis as content rich as the weather report. “It’s Tuesday. There’s a 50 percent chance of a state official being indicted this morning; Expect an ethics violation before sundown.”

It’s easy to write off corruption as indicative of a political class composed of crooks and liars. But when corruption is so widespread and so inherent in our politics, perhaps it’s not the people we elect, but the system we employ to get there and keep them there.

In the last Philadelphia primary election – one in which the winner of the Democratic nomination for mayor is likely to be the only contest faced by the eventual winner – only 27 percent of the city’s voters turned out. In a city facing serious financial shortfalls on a regular basis, including a $129 million gap in funding its schools, shouldn’t participation in a contest to select a mayor be quite a bit better?

Steffens was right about one thing: Corruption is the product of a citizenry that doesn’t care anymore. Until we act, we should expect to get, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, the government we deserve.

— Pete Mazzaccaro

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