If you had to guess, which U.S. state would you peg as more institutionally corrupt, New Jersey or South Dakota?
If you had to guess, which U.S. state would you peg as more institutionally corrupt, New Jersey or South Dakota? Or, if you had to choose, would you guess that the state that has sent two recent governors to prison – Illinois – is more or less corrupt than Wyoming? What about if you compared Mississippi with Vermont? Which would you choose as being more corrupt?
Well, guess no more, for a coalition of good-government and public watchdog groups have recently ranked the 50 U.S. states on a host of openness and accountability issues that, taken together, provide a good measure of how institutionally corrupt any given U.S. state is likely to be.
As it happens, Mississippi does pretty well on this ranking of institutional corruption – coming in at the sixth-least corrupt state, whereas progressive Vermont, home of liberal dreamboat Howard Dean, comes in at No. 26 – probably the first measure of any kind where perennially last-in-the-nation Mississippi does better than a state in the Northeast.
Illinois, too, does fairly well, despite having sent not one, but two governors to the iron-bar hotel within the last decade or so. Despite being the home of “Chicago-style” politics, Illinois, at No. 11 on the list, easily outdistances Wyoming – the entire population of which could fit into one or two Chicago suburbs – which comes in at No. 48.
If that doesn’t surprise you, then how about New Jersey, the fictional home of that “upright” hero of the working man – Tony Soprano? Well, Jersey, believe it or not, is the most politically clean state in the nation, while South Dakota is near dead last in terms of institutional corruption.
After picking your jaw up off of the floor, a good question to pose is just how these states got ranked this way. First, it should be pointed out these are not actual counts of incidents of corruption measured by this index. It is, rather, an accounting of how a state’s political institutions work to make the actions of politicians transparent to a state’s citizens.
An issue of transparency
For instance, the project examined three broad concepts – the existence of state-level public-integrity mechanisms, assessed effectiveness of such mechanisms by in-state journalists and watchdog organizations, and the assessed access citizens have to these mechanisms.
These organizing concepts were then applied to a variety of state political institutions and processes ranging from executive, legislative, and judicial branch accountability to the relative openness of the state budgetary and procurement process, redistricting boards, insurance commissions and pension fund management.
Once each area was examined at the state level and peer-reviewed by the project’s organizing investigators, the area scores were combined into an overall numerical value and translated into a letter grade that gives an overall assessment of how open and transparent a state’s government actually is in both theory and practice.
It is, in other words, a measure of how easy it is to “get away” with engaging in corruption in each state. Meaning that if you were a young Machiavelli looking for a state to enrich yourself in at the public’s expense, the index suggests it is far easier to do so in Wyoming than Illinois. What’s interesting here, however, is how institutional transparency and corruption-proneness plays out across regions. You might be surprised to learn that it is not necessarily the big city machines that drive institutional corruption in state politics, but sparsely populated rural areas.
Still the Wild West?
Indeed, the most consistently institutionally corrupt region in the country is to be found in the ruggedly individualist intermountain West and Great Plains – roughly extending in an arc that runs from Minnesota all the way west to the border of Washington, Oregon, and California, then runs south all the way to the Mexican border until it bends back east all the way to Texas. To the east of the relatively “clean” Midwest and Deep South, where the Mississippi River apparently runs through some of the least corrupt states in the nation, you find a smattering of institutionally corrupt states in both the north and south, but there is far more variability from state to state in these eastern regions than in the consistent arc of corruption out west.
Politically, while the progressive Pacific Coast is the leader of clean government, if a generalization can be made, then Republican states have a lead in being more institutionally corrupt. The poor scores of New Mexico, a Democratic stalwart of late, and traditionally deep-blue New York, however, should give one pause before labeling one or the other party more prone to systematic corruption. Economic well-being doesn’t seem to count for much, either, as dirt-poor Mississippi ranks as one of the most politically-clean states in the country.
So what is going on here? In the arc of corruption out West, three factors are probably at work, which, in combination, create a political culture that is toxic to accountability and good government. These factors are the region’s traditional dependence on politically-powerful resource-extraction industries such as mining and ranching, the region’s almost pathological insistence on local control and self-government, and an individualist culture that undermines effective local collective action aimed at alleviating problems.
In terms of resource extraction, perhaps no other region of the country has been more dominated by the interests of just a few big companies or economic combinations than the American West. Unlike the Midwest of the U.S. South, where land was fertile enough to support many competing farmers, all of whom were relatively equal to one another, the infertility and aridity of the West lent itself instead to vast ranching operations where land was concentrated into the hands of the very few.
Mining, which similarly lends itself to being dominated locally by just one or two large mining concerns – thus the origin of the term “company town” – also tends to concentrate wealth and political power into the hands of a very few individuals and families.
This created a form of social relations in the American West more often found in places like traditionally underdeveloped Latin America than “back east,” where a variety of equally-powerful economic actors vied for power. Out West, however, the necessary relative social equality between vying factions simply did not exist for traditional democratic politics to emerge as it did back east.
Instead, with power concentrated in the hands of mining magnates and an American Latifundia, what emerged instead was a highly unequal system where all power – economic, political, and social – was monopolized by a tiny elite.
Distribution of power
In this primordial political atmosphere, then, patron-client relationships between a dominating elite and those who worked for them is what typified political development in most Western states, not the back-and-forth of politics between competing factions – as was typically found in equally corrupt, big-city entrepôts like New York, Boston and Chicago.
The difference was that the competing ethnic factions in cities like Chicago were so numerous and powerful that power could not be consolidated into the hands of a single, wealthy elite class like as happened out West.
In the East, calls for accountability and transparency eventually emerged out of this factional competition in big-city America as all sides realized clean government was, given the possibility of losing an election and the spoils that came with it, a good alternative to an all-or nothing gamble that elections entailed.
Out West, because power was monopolized, elections were never in doubt and so demands for clean government never put forward by political actors with real muscle behind them. Indeed, clean government initiatives would only serve to make direct control by the West’s wealthy that much more obvious, with their success depending on those giving out the bribes being willing to let those taking them being exposed to the public. Obviously, such initiatives were never going to be successful.
Even the media out West – the traditional watchdog of government – was part of the problem, for back East multiple factions supported newspapers with journalists all competing to do the other side in. Out of this adversarial system, much like the American system of justice, transparency emerged out of the chaos as one could never be assured the opposition press wouldn’t make a scandal out of a particular government contract or political deal.
Out West, the sparse, small, and highly unequal population could not support the many competing newspapers as existed out east, and so those newspapers that did emerge became, more or less, the mouthpiece of the rich and powerful. In the American East, then, at least there were usually different elites who more or less hated and competed with one another. Out West, there was usually just one family or wealthy concern in control of things.
Compounding this basic problem of differing socio-economic structure, political accountability and transparency out West is the West’s overreliance on self-rule and local government.
Why this is so is ironically paradoxical. After all, shouldn’t an emphasis on keeping government close to home make the problem of corruption easier to solve instead of harder? Locals, in theory, know one another and understand what local problems are. Surely, more local control and self-government is a solution to the problem of corruption, not its cause?
The problem with this scenario, however, relates once again to the problem of economic inequality and existing social structure. Locals know one another, true, but that rich social capital between members of a community can just as easily turn evil as good – especially if there is no accountability to outsiders and the community itself is highly unequal. In such a situation, local control often merely strengthens existing social divisions and entrenches local elites.
It is all well and good to turn over, for example, school finance and accountability to locals, but if those locals are dominated by a wealthy, land-owning elite who don’t care to fund schools out of property taxes levied on themselves, what good is local control for most people?
Similarly, devolving power down to local government shrinks the number of powerful actors who can have a meaningful impact on policy as it is legislated and implemented. What occurs is that instead of there being very many big fish competing with one another in a very large pond – as happened in the East’s large cities – the large pond is subdivided into smaller ponds, each dominated by just one big fish.
Again, not so ideal a situation if you are one of the small fry trying to survive. Shrinking the political pond thus paradoxically limits political competition and inadvertently creates many independent local political monopolies that are ideal breeding grounds for corruption.
Drawbacks of “Drifters” in the West
Finally, the West’s famous penchant for “rugged individualist” libertarianism is also partly to blame. The Western frontier was famously a place where people moved to in order to stake a claim, make it big, and leave once the killing – sometimes literally – was made.
The folks who moved out West to mining camps, ranch lands and pioneer towns took enormous risks and did so with the full knowledge that they were doing so on their own with no government to back them up. Indeed, many left Eastern America for the same reason Europeans themselves left for America – to pursue opportunity without the constraints to be found in a more established, orderly society. The West, in other words, was and is America on steroids.
The drawback to this individualist stance, however, is that it made coping with communal problems that much more difficult. In Europe and to a lesser extent Eastern America as well, the working and middle classes were forced to work together in order to compel wealthy interests to listen to and deal with their grievances.
Out West, it was much simpler simply to pick up stakes and move on if one found the going tough – especially if that going was made tougher by entrenched local bigwigs who hoarded wealth and opportunity for themselves. Given the difficulty in penetrating this closed circle, it made sense to simply move on.
This penchant to leave when the going gets tough, to not get involved in the problems of others, and to keep to oneself is deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Drifter – the archetype hero of many Spaghetti Western epics – is a hero character who only comes to help the town he wanders into after he has formed some sort of emotional bond – usually a love interest – with the locals. Absent that bond, the Drifter is free to leave the town and its inhabitants whenever he may wish.
This freedom to buck ties of community and locality in order to see what can be gained over the next hill or on the next trail is part of the West’s romantic appeal. It is a powerful, continuing cultural legacy that intoxicates many residing both in and outside the American West. It also, however, makes solving local problems or confronting local elites extremely difficult as getting Westerners to agree – especially when sacrifices are required – becomes very much like trying to herd cats. Cooperation and sacrifice, when they are called for, are reserved for family, clan, and coreligionists – not suspiciously high-minded outside agitators and, yes, community organizers. Obviously, this mentality makes confronting problems caused by local corruption highly problematic, if not impossible, to solve.
So, for a number of reasons, the American West remains the most consistently corrupt political region in the country. Sure, New Jersey may be home to Tony Soprano and two Illinois governors may be sitting in the pen, but this “big state, big city” corruption is more a relic of past practice and current perception than a fact of existing reality. Indeed, the very idea that two Illinois governors are even now in prison is a good sign for clean government in Illinois.
It demonstrates that, at the very least, a working justice system exists in there and that political accountability and transparency not only exist as concepts, but are strong enough in practice to send even a couple of chief executives to the slammer.
These two emphatically did not “get away with it” – which is why Illinois was likely ranked so highly in this state-by-state accounting of institutional corruption. Too bad for them, then, that they weren’t born out West. Just think, if they had tried the same shenanigans in, say, Idaho or Wyoming, that landed them in the big house in Illinois then it’s quite likely they would both be U.S. senators, or presidential hopefuls by now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.