Cronies are close friends who have a long history with each other. Long-term friends and companions tend to be especially close to each other, and their relationships are often mutually beneficial. As a result, the meaning of the word “crony” has twisted slightly from its original sense, and today it is used primarily to refer to cronyism, a type of political corruption which is characterized by doing favors for old friends and long-term companions.
In the original sense, “crony” appears to have emerged at Cambridge in the 1660s, and it is believed to be derived from the Greek khronos, or “time,” the same root behind words like “chronology” and “chronometer.” Originally, cronies were simply old and well-established friends who were viewed as pleasant and enjoyable company. In the 1900s, however, the term began to acquire more sinister implications, as politicians set their friends up with lucrative government contracts or positions.
The traditional sense of the word is still retained in some circles, but people more commonly use “cronies” with a sinister bent, suggesting a whiff of corruption and nepotism which goes beyond simple friendship. Cronyism is illegal in many countries, as are other forms of corruption, but it can sometimes be difficult to prove, and politicians may choose to take advantage of this to advance their friends in the political hierarchy.
The history of cronyism is, of course, quite ancient, and numerous politicians throughout history have been accused of granting favors to their cronies. In some cases, historians have suggested that this form of corruption has ultimately led to political instability in some cultures, hastening the downfall of governments and empires. Certainly, cronyism is often viewed as especially repugnant by the citizens of a nation, so cases in which politicians are convicted of cronyism can be politically explosive.
For politicians, engaging in cronyism has several advantages. In the first place, of course, it cements long-lasting friendships, building stronger ties between old friends. People who gain positions, power, or contracts through cronyism are also beholden to their cronies, which can be advantageous later on when the politician needs a favor in return. Cronyism also surrounds a politician with people who are loyal to him or her, which can be politically useful.
Where cronyism is illegal, politicians are generally careful to avoid accusations of cronyism, to ensure that they continue to be viewed as people with integrity. In some cases, politicians may even attempt to distance themselves from old cronies, especially when they are in a position to help old friends out, to ensure that those friends come by favors fairly, rather than through corrupt means.