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An Analysis of Political Corruption of American Cities in The Shame of Cities by Lincoln Steffens

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Lincoln Steffens on Political Corruption

Lincoln Steffens was a political journalist. He became famous when he began to write a series on the corruption of American Cities, called The Shame of Cities. Steffens focused mainly on political corruption of the municipal governments. He began to doubt the effectiveness of reform politics, and believed that they searched to destroy the symptoms of corruption, rather than the causes. He also suggested that party loyalty was a thing that should be left in the past, and everyone should be able to vote as individuals rather than large groups controlled by the government. He often referred to the government and those in high power that seem to be dealing with the issue faced, as “political machines.” These “machines” controlled everything, and the common person hardly had any freedom while they’re in power.

In The Shame of Cities, Steffens makes a remark, saying, “Because politics is business. That’s what’s the matter with it. That’s what’s the matter with everything—art, literature, religion, journalism, law, medicine—they’re all business, and all—as you see them.” (Steffens 6) He calls politics strictly business, and insinuates that the men in charge only care about the profit they’ll be making in the long run, rather than what would benefit the public. Steffens, like the many other reformers, wanted to change this.

When describing the politicians themselves, Steffens said, “The commercial spirit is the spirit of profit, not patriotism; of credit, not honor; of individual gain, not national prosperity..”. (Steffens 7) Politicians, who view politics themselves as strictly business, do not consider the wellbeing of those affected, but rather only the outcome of their “business.” They look to themselves first, putting the outcome of their business above the public. As long as they succeed, they are happy.

Steffens believed to have found a solution to the corruption in the government. He believed that if political leaders are going to act like “merchants”, then the public should respond in a similar manner. The public should act like the consumers of the “merchants” and demand a good government. By demanding a good government, the political “merchants” will follow the rule of ‘supply and demand,’ and therefore supply a good government.

The political leaders are not only at fault, however. Steffens said it’s the people’s fault as well, for allowing the leaders to come and “divert our loyalty from the United States to some ‘party’; we let them boss the party and turn our municipal democracies into autocracies and our republican nation into an plutocracy.” (Steffens 11) Steffens original intent was to inform people about the corruption in the governments, but his eyes were opened when he realized that the people were at fault as well. The problem wouldn’t be solved as easily as he had hoped, because the people would have to put in an effort to change just as well as the politicians would.

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An Analysis of Political Corruption of American Cities in the Shame of Cities by Lincoln Steffens. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
“An Analysis of Political Corruption of American Cities in the Shame of Cities by Lincoln Steffens.” GradesFixer, 26 Oct. 2018,
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