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The Culture of Cannibalism in US Politics: The Cycle of Corruption

MarkTwain_arts Mark Twain, in “Cannibalism in the Cars,” suggested that cannibalism of the body politic is a logical outcome of the practice of the political values of the elected representatives of the United States, in dire circumstances. What would occur, if such dire circumstances did not require a natural disaster, but became a systemic feature of the political landscape?


The current economic crisis and America’s abject failure to provide economically-efficient, affordable healthcare are two examples of dire circumstances that are systemic features of America’s political landscape. Both crises are the results of bad governance. Both circumstances are direct products of the growth of influence of en-corporated political interests (encorps) in the system of governance of the United States. Bad governance, in both cases, involves a betrayal of the public trust that is manifested in not regulating the encorps in a way that protects the public’s interests, especially with respect to not meaningfully regulating the encorps ability to influence government officials.

The United States was born wary of the power of vested interests to influence public policy. Alexander Hamilton’s comments in the Federalist Papers are an example of this concern. .

In republics, persons elevated from the mass of the community, by the suffrages of their fellow-citizens, to stations of great pre-eminence and power, may find compensations for betraying their trust, which, to any but minds animated and guided by superior virtue, may appear to exceed the proportion of interest they have in the common stock, and to overbalance the obligations of duty.

Unfortunately, keeping the vested interests out is not a simple matter. How can it be when parties themselves are collective expressions of a set of weighted interests? Frankly, it is sensible for people of like purpose to strive together to achieve their aims, and there is nothing necessarily insidious about the practise. In fact, it’s a cornerstone of Democracy and civil society.

It is also, however, the entry way for corruption because the crux of the matter is not that people have differing and competing interests: it’s that they differ so greatly in terms of their power to realize those interests. When the power to realize those interests is used to unjustly deny the interests of less powerful, but equally or more deserving citizens, through a donation that is traded for a piece of unjust legislation, then it can be said that a positive feedback loop of corruption has been initiated.
The overly simple analysis that follows attempts to describe the basic workings of this system.

Two Party Statement

Before describing the workings of the cycle of corruption it is important to note that this positive feedback loop is only possible because the two-party system is so engrained in the American psyche. Generally-speaking, Democrats and Republicans share being disappointed with aspects of their party’s platforms and its legislative performance when in office. They also share being certain that the other party’s platforms and performance are far worse. For many, the lesser evil is always a more palatable option.


The latter point constitutes a barrier to the creation of a third party that is not beholden to the encorps. Not only will it suffer a comparative lack of funds, but it is likely to be blamed for the defeat of whichever party it is more closely aligned with. Until the lesser evil is not considered a more palatable option than fighting for a party that will undermine the influence of the encorps, the cycle of corruption is likely to continue.

The Cycle of Corruption

The cycle of corruption acts as a positive feedback loop because the encorps who are aligned with the losing party are at risk to the extent that they cannot align with the other party. Accordingly, they have an inducement to donate even more money for the next election. The winners, on the other hand, want to keep their advantage, and in the face of increasing political donations in their opponent’s sphere, they do likewise in their sphere. As a result, both campaign donations and encorp influence increase hand-in-hand. The vast amounts raised in this last political cycle go hand-in-hand with the vast amounts of helicopter money gifted to Wall Street and the Obama administration’s commitment to supporting the continuation of the existing system of healthcare delivery, with only trivial modifications (July 18th).


At some point, it is longer possible for the parties to provide returns to the encorps that match the donations, without compromising their policy platforms. The party that reaches this point first is forced to accept perpetual defeat, as its’ encorps wither under the winner’s policies, unless it begins to sacrifice some of its’ policy aims as a way of opening new revenue streams to its’ encorps or to make it more palatable to the opposition’s encorps. The changes in policy are also likely to involve abandoning advocacy for less lucrative encorps. This new strategy threatens the party in power. In response, it compromises its’ platforms in the same way. Through this process the parties begin to become less distinguishable.


The parties’ policy platforms represent their conception of what constitutes the public interest. When they modify their platforms to conform to encorp interests, they do so by sacrificing the interests of their citizen consituency. Given that the payoff to the encorps for their donations is increased profits and power, some of this interest is purchased by taking it from the natural, social, cultural, structural, and human capital of the nation and its citizens.

This redistribution of the total wealth of the nation, from the citizens to the encorps, is manifest in citizens, through their representatives, “adopting” ever-increasing business externalities while receiving ever-decreasing business taxes, which yields deteriorating social and cultural infrastructure, decreasing government services, decreased environmental and labor standards, and a diminishing scope of possibilities for living a prosperous, meaningful, healthy life for the majority of the citizens.


It is worth noting that, in this diagram, the arrows that cycle between legislation and deprivation are not indicated with a “+” sign. This is because deprivation is not a driver for legislation to create more deprivation. Rather, it is the donations that drive the deprivation through the legislation.

This said, that the arrows are left driverless does not mean they are driverless. These models are necessarily overly simplified. Deprivations can, and do, cause the deprived to take actions to modify the cycle. After all, the electorate own their votes, which are the ultimate donation. Accordingly, when the actions of the electorate begin to jeopardize the electability of the encorp beholden candidates, they have a regulatory effect on the legislation, which begins to act as a limiting factor on the cycle of donations.

The Culture of Cannibalism in US Politics

In diminishing the structural and functional integrity of the nation, through legislation that embodies the aspirations of the encorps, the parties enhance the systemic likelihood that dire circumstances will occur to the citizenry. Two examples of betraying the public interest in this way are the active refusal to regulate the financial industry in a way that would have limited the scope of the economic crisis and the refusal to regulate the healthcare industry so that all American citizens have access to basic healthcare, without undue economic hardship.

Much like the decisions made by the congressmen in Twain’s snowbound train, in enacting legislation that undermines the public good, America’s current tribes of legislators have not only proven Twain’s intuition that they are prone to cannibalism, they have also demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice their fellow citizens to those who would feast on their well-being.


54 Responses

  1. Very nice.

    It seems that the encorps as you call them are not donating to help pick someone they like better. You can tell that by how many donate about the same to both parties. Well, they donate the same if a race is close, and more to the winner if the race has a heavy favorite because they’re not stupid. But back the point, they’re not doing it to pick one side. They’re doing it as a payment for a service. They’re buying a stock that will give them a good return on investment. Simple as that. And like most quarter driven public business of today, there is no thought of long term effects.

    Well Ollie, that’s one fine mess you’ve gotten us into.

    • They’re buying a stock that will give them a good return on investment

      That’s a damn good way of putting it!

      • Yes, it is.

      • And the best stock was a half-black man who could spew charges of racism whenever public opinion leaned in the other direction. A huge coup for the encorps! Where’s the opposition? How effectively it’s been silenced — the antiwar protestors and now the advocates for single-payer.

        Great synopsis of the entrenching of corruption in our 2-party system!!!!!!

  2. DT,

    Arrrr, Matey. T’is right. What began due to alignment has evolved into payment for a service. The service is influence over how the goods of the nation are distributed.

    The service can be viewed as giving or preventing access to the nation’s goods, the good’s of a competitor, or your goods (as an encorp). In other words, it can be like paying for “protection.”

    Influence is pedalled, which is why it so amenable to a cycle. 😉


  3. The last time we had this much corruption, it took a dynamic almost crazy president, T.R. Roosevelt with an incredible streak of crazy ‘outsiderness’ to get rid of all of the robber barons of his time. Then of course there was the other Roosevelt FDR too. Both of these guys came from old enough money to know what suddenly enriching the ordinary guy does to people. Biden, Obama, and Edwards have all found ways to to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps of corporate interests’. Tom Delay also comes to mind for the Republicans.

    I’m just amazed at how ingrained corruption is in our system now. Democrats call Republicans corrupt. Republicans call Democrats corrupt. Both refuse to see the corruption in their own ranks and yet we’ve got the FBI putting tons of them into Federal Prison Right now.

    I’m absolutely dismayed by the inability of our system to handle this.

    Excellent piece,Steven. I can see all the hard work in this. You should submit it to Harper’s. Really. It’s that good.

    • Dakinikat,

      Thank you. Because you know that I regard your work very highly, I sincerely appreciate the compliment.


    • A Teddy R would be nice. If a viable “cleanse the system and boot out the graft” kind of candidate emerged, and I thought they were serious, I’d overlook a lot of other items to get that whopping dose of real reform.

  4. The founders also didn’t want political parties but it didn’t take them long to set up parties and begin the tradition of accusing the opponent of every vile thing imaginable.

    I’m a lurker here and have been reading this blog since the primaries last year. I enjoy everyone’s posts whether I agree or disagree with the content.

    On topic, unless we can get more than a viable two-party system in place, I don’t think we will ever see a change. Everyone in congress for more than a term seems to end up beholden to/working for some corporation.

    The Clintons seem to be the last politicians who truly understood what public service is all about.

    – Pywacket

    • P,

      TY for de-lurking.

      Obviously, I also think alternative parties are the way to go. My sense is that they they won’t give love (legislation), unless they fear losing love (electoral support).


      • Alternative parties could gain ground if people were willing to bite the bullet and realize that no, they are not going to win at first. Which means the guy you hate most may win, and you have to accept that.

        But if we keep voting for them, then long-term they will begin to win more often, and then we the people have some leverage. It’s getting the folks to think long term, not the next election, that is the rub.

        It’s becoming more obvious that both parties are equally bought, so maybe we have reached the point where more voters are willing to take the chance on third parties.

        • Most, like Nadir and company are so full of themselves they try for the brass ring right off the bat. While it might stroke their egos they rarely go anywhere. You have to start at the bottom and work up.

          • I agree. We need to work at getting some other parties (or no parties) elected at the local and state level.

          • MM,

            It is difficult to enter a well-established market. Apart from local candidates with inspiring narratives, people who vote in first past the pole/poll systems like to vote for those who can actually form a govenrment.

            You point to a dilemma. How does one start at the bottom and appear like a viable option?

            In terms of ego, it takes chutzpah to try and change an established system. 😉


        • in some states, it is very difficult to get third parties on the ballot and then because there are party specific ballots, they’re not set up for any kind of run off — this would take major state by state reform

          • Dakinikat,

            Hmm. So choices matter, except when it comes to selecting one’s representatives. 😉

            Do you prefer to be keel-hauled or drawn and quartered?


        • All too true, but a lot of voters fed up with the current corrupt organization with two labels don’t have the luxury of considering the long term. People with no insurance need relief now, not a decade down the line when it *might* cover their survivors. And time is running out rapidly on environmental issues such as peak oil and climate change. We’ve probably passed the point of peak oil–authorities differ, but we’re at best very close to it. We’re terrifyingly close to the tipping point on global warming.

          Of course, if civilization basically breaks down in a series of resource wars, accompanied by mass migrations and the spread of disease, national government will become impossible in any case, and the resulting human die-off will be the first step of a *really* long-term solution of those problems.

          • os,

            Because my doctoral research is on post-apocalyptic social design, your comments resonate with me.


    • Bell, book, and candle? We need more than two parties, unfortunately most third party efforts are wack-a-loons.

  5. Excellent piece, Steven. I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a mostly non-political friend. I think he votes in most of the presidential elections, but that’s about it.

    He said something curious. He said, “You know, I don’t mind so much when politicians do something or pass some law that I don’t agree with, if I think they are doing it because they are trying to do what the people told them to do. Even if I disagree, I’m okay with it But I never think that anymore, or hardly ever. Now it’s mostly which big donor, which influential lobbyist group are they cutting deals for. They all do it. It’s depressing”

    I found it interesting that he didn’t insist that politicians necessarily do what he agrees with – so long as he felt they were honestly serving the people who elected them, they retain his respect, if not his support.

    People get the difference. They get the concept of representative govt, and know that we no longer really have it. As a matter of fact, lots of people on both the right and the left get that. It’s an issue of how our govt functions in truth, just who they are representing, that cuts across “packaged” ideologies.

    • W,

      TY for the thoughts.

      We agree that a conception of what is fair (Declaration of Independence/Constitution) and a betrayal of trust, with regard to the proper application of these principles, is the primary issue.

      Frankly, it is bizarre that people who understand the value of competition (which means “to strive together”) don’t understand what it means to that competition when the referees can be paid to bend the rules.


      • Yup. Competition can’t exist when deep pockets control the refs, and the rules on the field, and even what players make the cut.

        I’ve had some success arguing that with die-hard “merit-based society” types.

  6. http://michellemalkin.com/2009/08/20/snort-axelrod-to-lecture-on-integrity-in-public-service/

    I know she is a fruitcake but even she can not make this up.

    Washington DC is supposed to be a place where representatives of the AMERICAN PEOPLE gather to make laws that help those people. It seems that swamp gas affects the brain when they get there and they forget who they represent. They sell themselves like half a dollar hookers to the highest corporate bidder. We really do need term limits as some of these hookers stay too long at the fair.



    • Chapter 2 of “You can’t make this stuff up:”

      Heard on Air America, when they finally revealed and discussed Obama’s secret meetings with Big Pharma:

      “….it makes me puke that we have just been ‘Cheneyed’ by a guy named Barak Obama….”

      Well, duh. Koolaid turning sour?

      • Mary — who was it on AAR who said that??? I stopped listening to them long ago when they began championing Obama’s book as evidence of him being the great pol who’d liberate us from corruption.

  7. Just ask inventor Philo Farnsworth.

  8. First stay involved
    Second local elections for parties other than the dem and rep.
    Third make them accountable
    Fourth term limits

    Slowly the wheels will turn and we can get our government back



    • Part of the problem is the costs involved in getting elected and term limits wouldn’t solve that. The powers that be would just set up a rotation system like tag team wrestling.
      People forget that on air radio and television broadcast licenses are just that, permission to use our airwaves. The FCC could mandate that political advertising for viable candidates be carried for free and all eligible get equal time and time slots.

      • your idea of equal time on the airwaves as a public service is a very good one. What can we do to make it happen. It would change the way elections are run.



        • h,

          It’s done elsewhere and it is a good idea.

          Getting people to listen is another thing.


  9. Personally, I’d love to see a big variety in Congress. I think it would be healthy if some eastern seaboard states sent a few out-and-out socialists to DC, and Nebraska or Wyoming sent a few genuine libertarians, and other states sent some Independent blue-collar populists who had no patience with graft.

    Because all of the above, whether I personally agreed with them on all things or not, would wreak havoc on the cushy and carefully controlled setup Congress and their lobbyists currently have. We’d have REAL floor debates! We’d have party-lines criss-crossed all over the damn place, as representatives voted on the issues, not for some “strategy” to benefit their party! It would be a mess! It would be glorious!

    • W,

      I think that a system that combines first past the poll with proportional representation, like they have in Germany, is worth an experiment.


      • Me, too. I think that system gives a much clearer and more accurate representation of the people. The problem is that in order to change the laws to do that, we need to two parties in power to basically vote to kill themselves off. It’s a conundrum.

        • W,

          The concept of a noble suicide is lost in a society where the corrupt are caught and don’t think they should resign.


        • At one time, I remember reading something that to get a position on the ballot for local elections required more signatures for independents than for the established parties.
          Anybody know if it is true? And wouldn’t that be a violation of equal protection?

          • I believe it varies widely by state and district, as dakinikat pointed out above.
            But yes, you’d think there could be a legal challenge to the practice, but of course that once again comes down to money to fight the suit, which the opposition will have plenty of.

          • MM & W,

            The barriers to entry are exceedingly difficult to surmount.

            It’s an interesting puzzle. Is this knot Gordian?


    • A glorious mess! I like the idea of that (though it would probably be hell in practice).

      In any event it would be interesting to have an antitrust lawsuit brought against the two parties for collusion and self dealing. They operate as political monopolies (essentially) and we get what we’ve come to expect from economic monopolies: poor service, endemic corruption, and high prices.

      • tbc,

        I like the idea of an antitrust lawsuit as well as a RICO indictment.


      • Good idea! But can an anti-trust suit be brought on entities that are not a business? It’s frustrating.

        But yeah, I’d love to see a genuine “marketplace of ideas” in congress, from liberal to conservative to out-in-the-outfield-somewhere. It would beat the “two mildly differing canned scripts” version we have now.

      • Yes they do that in Italy-to counteract Berlusconi. It’s imperfect because there are so many subtle ways news can be slanted on TV-but it’s better than nothing.

    • A glorious mess. Count me in!

    • WMCB — we might have pols who actually read the bills they were voting on! Now that’d be some real change!

  10. Excellent post Steve! My husband said at least the old time robber barons built somethings like railroads along with the stealing ! This crew just does the robber part , not the baron. And like the old saying goes , ” give ’em bread and circus” . However today’s powers that be are trying that , but without the bread part . I worry they are coming back from their Nantucket estates…..usually means trouble

  11. pd,

    I agree with your husband. It’s as if they think the relationship is a sado-masochistic agreement in which we pay them to abuse us.


  12. something to think about :

    – All classic democracies in the West are parliamentary systems except the USA and France (some formally presidential systems like .Finland are in reality parliamentary systems and some presidential systems in “New Europe” are quite untested and not representative)

    – France has a multiparty system with partial proportionality. Even if the final clash is often between left an right, other parties can play a key role in creating majorities and clashes right-right or involving centrists are common. Same goes for Germany.

    – what I know of (maybe with the exception of Italy) private financing of parties by lobbies/corporations/associations/unions is totally forbidden. Individualsr can participate in the financing with minor sums. The current financing system in the US would result in jail and inegibility for all elected representatives, to take France as an example. Taking money from a private funder is simply anathema. The State finances campaigns and drift. The private personal funding depends on the amount of subsidizing party members or supporters.

    – commercials and TV speech-time for campaigns are equal for all parties, down to the second and cannot be financed by private interests. Public service TV airs them mostly.

    – registration of voters is secret and internal to the parties. The mere public anouncement of one’s political preference
    during the voting procedure is liable of jail, and invalidates the local election. The mere registration of political belonging like done in the US is outlandish in most Europen countries. In France it’s unconstitutional. But of course one can proclaim his/her belonging as long it’s outside the voting procedure. Caucus like systems during primaries are permitted (since they are internal) but often seen with a lot of suspicion since the vote isn’t secret.

    • FW,

      Thanks for the useful and curiousity piquing info.

      For me, one of the things it does is point out that meaningful freedom is a careful balance between freedom to” and “freedom from.” For example, in the market place of ideas of an election, citizens much be able to be heard without being able to effectively drown others out.



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