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Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United Hardcover – September 29, 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 73 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


At last someone has written a book that puts a name to what is perhaps the most significant factor shaping American politics today: corruption. In a masterly work of scholarship, Zephyr Teachout…traces the history of American approaches to what was long considered a mortal threat to the republic. She demonstrates that recent jurisprudence, which has whittled down the definition of corruption to encompass only a contractual exchange between briber and public official, represents nothing less than ‘a revolution in political theory.’… Teachout calls for a return to the Framers’ preference for across-the-board rules to help prevent corrupt acts before they are perpetrated, rather than relying on punishment after the fact. (Sarah Chayes Wall Street Journal 2014-09-26)

In Corruption in America, an eloquent, revealing, and sometimes surprising historical inquiry, Teachout convincingly argues that corruption, broadly understood as placing private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root of what ails American democracy. (David Cole New York Review of Books 2014-09-25)

Teachout’s book is filled with colorful anecdotes about Americans getting away with all sorts of chicanery…Corruption in America shows that it is possible to establish and maintain governmental institutions that shield us from our worst instincts. This was the goal of Madison and his peers, and it could still be achieved with a better public-election finance system, which could be constitutional under Citizens United if the system did not restrict private donations. Democrats who will be looking for a fresh agenda in 2016 should read Teachout’s book carefully. (Max Ehrenfreund Washington Post 2014-09-21)

A book that merits the large readership it may get…Teachout’s narrative spans the history of the United States from its beginnings through Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. (Scott McLemee Inside Higher Ed 2014-09-24)

Zephyr Teachout argues that recent court decisions―and a lax attitude toward corruption―are putting private interests over the public good. Teachout complains of the revolving-door practice of congressional representatives retiring and becoming lobbyists. She says the policy breeds ethical conflicts and tainted decision-making. (Carl Campanile New York Post 2014-09-17)

Teachout’s beautifully written and powerful book exposes a simple but profound error at the core of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision. The originalists on the Court forgot their history. This is that history―and eventually it will provide the basis for reversing the Court’s critical error. (Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress―and a Plan to Stop It)

This is a wonderful and important book. Zephyr Teachout shows what’s wrong with how the Supreme Court thinks about democracy and political corruption, how we got to this terrible place, and that it wasn’t always this way―and doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of learning and original synthesis here, and also an unmistakable voice, which blends a lively intelligence with passion for democracy as a way of life. (Jedediah Purdy, author of A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom)

You have probably heard pundits say we are living in an age of ‘legalized bribery’; Corruption in America is the book that makes their case in careful detail…State governments subject to wealthy corporations? Check. Speculators in legislation, infesting the capital? They call it K Street…And all of it has happened, Teachout admonishes, because the founders’ understanding of corruption has been methodically taken apart by a Supreme Court that cynically pretends to worship the founders’ every word. (Thomas Frank New York Times Book Review 2014-10-16)

[Teachout] wrote [this] book, she says, primarily in answer to conservative members of the Supreme Court, who, in a series of decisions climaxing in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, have successively narrowed the legal definition of corruption to the point that it now effectively includes only outright bribery. In Citizens United, for example, the majority struck down corporate spending limits in politics on the grounds that there is nothing inherently corrupting about corporations trying to buy influence with politicians so long as there is no explicit quid pro quo. Teachout spends much of her book showing just how naive, dangerous, and, frankly, anti-American the Founding Fathers would have considered such reasoning…It is certainly refreshing to watch Teachout remind jurists who pretend to wrap themselves in the mantle of strict construction just how at odds their views of human nature and the role of government are with those of the framers. (Daniel Bush Washington Monthly 2015-01-01)

[Teachout] has written an intelligent, stimulating, and wide-ranging retort to the Roberts Court’s constrained view of corruption. In Corruption in America, she argues that for democracy to thrive, we need a far more capacious characterization of this key concept…Her book in part [is] a greatest hits of court cases and laws dealing with bribery and lobbying, full of corrupt land deals and railroad intrigue…While there is obviously plenty to debate and disagree over in how we might define and delineate corruption, the broad unsettledness of the concept is perhaps Teachout’s point. She has some ideas on how we might think about corruption, and she highlights others’ ideas as well. But mostly, she just wants us to debate and discuss corruption more, to view it as a controversial issue, and not to let the Roberts Court sweep it away into a marginal corner so that it can then declare it irrelevant, thus clearing the way for unlimited campaign contributions…Teachout’s book may be just the rousing call to arms we need for the fight ahead. (Lee Drutman Democracy 2015-02-01)

After a thorough and almost agonizingly detailed grand tour of dozens of often conflicting federal and state court decisions differing on the precise legal meaning of ‘corruption,’ Teachout ends up with a book that should become required reading in constitutional law classes. (Michael Hirsch Indypendent 2015-04-01)

Teachout explores case law and controversies before the 1970s and finds that many generations of jurists and politicians had a much broader conception of political corruption and a richer sense of civic duty and viewed any sort of gift-giving from private citizens to public officials as ethically dubious and undermining of democratic legitimacy. Though there was quite a bit of public corruption in the old days, there was also a respect for public virtue for which modern jurisprudence has little patience. The Supreme Court’s dramatic turn away from an older tradition leaves Congress unable to regulate lobbying and campaign spending wisely, should it chose to do so. With public confidence in government low and Washington politics driven by the agendas of corporations and the wealthy, Teachout’s argument is timely, compelling, and important. (R. M. Flanagan Choice 2015-08-01)

This is an important book. (Mark G. Spencer Times Literary Supplement 2016-01-22)

About the Author

Zephyr Teachout is Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 29, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674050401
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674050402
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #301,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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An original and thoughtful work, well documented with citations to her sources. She traces a core American value treasured by all, or most, of the Founding Fathers. From there, she navigates us into the 1940s to 1970's legal narrowing of corruption, and into this new legal environment of our current Citizen's United era. She discusses other current thinkers, too. Those against Citizen's United will find new and better reasons, based on America's historic foundations, to support their opposition to Citizen's.Those who do not oppose it, find many reasons to reconsider. Both sides, and others interested, would benefit by her analysis. She withholds her fixes and opinions to the last few pages. Before that, however, she teaches by introducing fresh analysis, which provides much nutrition for our thoughts. Lucid writing, not seemingly scholarly -though certainly a work of good scholarship.
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I knew Zephyr Teachout when she was Associate Professor of Law at Duke University several years ago, so when I saw this book, it caught my both eye and interest.
What this book mostly focuses on is bribes and gifts, and sometimes they are one of the same.
Throughout history, especially in Europe, giving gifts to ambassadors from other countries was traditional. It was expected in all royal courts, with the exception of Holland. Of course, something, perhaps a favor, was expected in return, even though it was not stated. This may have been corruption per se, but it was the ritual, for in 18th century Europe, being composed of monarchies rather than democracies, bribery was the norm. Britain, for example, was both noble and corrupt, but they didn't care.
This book is about corruption, starting from when the United States was first an independent country, from the Constitution Convention, up to the present time, and how we handled this vice throughout our history.
King Louis XVI of France gave Ben Franklin a snuffbox, with a portrait of the king circled by 408 diamonds. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, received a horse from the King of Spain. Were these gifts, showing tokens of appreciation and goodwill, or a bribe, expecting something in return at a later date? Since both officials accepted these gifts, is it acceptable? What does that make them?
If the gift is expensive enough, that king may expect a favor from the country the ambassador represents in return, and that ambassador may be expected to see it through. Such dealings are dangerous, and the founding fathers knew this. In the first part of the book, the history and controversy of this dilemma is given.
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Very interesting and frustrating at the same time. Her critique of the Supreme Court makes me want to move to Canada! How the court has ignored a large history of case law in their Citizens United ruling is extremely disturbing. She makes a compelling case that they have really made a huge mistake.
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If you’re among the four out of five Americans who decry Citizens United as a tragic misstep, law professor Zephyr Teachout will show you just how far outside the bounds of precedent and tradition the Supreme Court stepped when it produced this misbegotten ruling.

“This new legal order,” Ms. Teachout writes, “treats corruption lightly and in a limited way. It narrows the scope of what is considered corruption to explicit deals. It reclassifies influence-seeking as normal and desirable political behavior.” Teachout attributes the Court’s logic to a loss of confidence in democracy, though I might question whether the Right-Wing ideology that holds sway on today’s Court has ever held any brief for democracy. “The Court has become populated by academics and appellate court justices, and not by people with experience of power and politics, who understand the ways in which real problems of money and influence manifest themselves.”

For two centuries, the prevailing view in American legislatures and courts was that factually demonstrable, quid pro quo bribery and extortion were unusual phenomena — that the potential for political and judicial corruption was far broader and rested on the cultivation of personal relationships that could grow on the strength of financial support. “By corruption, the early generations meant excessive private interests influencing the exercise of public power.” Thus, until the 1970s, it was broadly taken for granted that large corporate contributions could distort the policymaking process. Then, in 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court overturned the campaign spending limits that were a centerpiece of the 1974 campaign finance reform legislation passed with broad bipartisan support in the wake of Watergate.
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An excellent and readable discussion of the changes in views as to what constitutes corruption in America. From a very strict view, that diplomats such as Franklin as minister to France should not accept even gifts that were traditionally given to departing diplomats to the current Supreme Court view that only something that would make out the crime of bribery can constitute corruption. Once accepting a single suffbox could be regarded as corruption, now putting enormous funds into an election in effect to buy the result is not, in the Court's view, corruption. This book is well worth reading.
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