Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

chris-christie

Chris Christie. (Photo: L.E. Mormile/Shutterstock)

How Much Corruption Do We Want in Our Politicians?

• January 13, 2014 • 10:00 AM

Chris Christie. (Photo: L.E. Mormile/Shutterstock)

It may well be that leadership requires some unsavory arm-twisting and palm-greasing.

As the recent revelations about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office’s role in creating traffic in Fort Lee demonstrate, old school political corruption is very much a part of modern politics. We may pat ourselves on the back for having an enlightened, evolved political system—and really, corruption is quite low in the U.S. by international standards—but brazen abuses of power remain part of some politicians’ tool chests.

Yet perhaps some corruption is, in fact, a good thing. As the film Lincoln nicely demonstrated in 2012, some abuses of power may be employed to serve a greater common good. In hindsight, we generally regard the passage of the 13th amendment as one of the better moments in our nation’s history. But Lincoln did not achieve that political victory simply by appealing to the better angels of our nature. He quite brazenly bought off many members of Congress with patronage jobs, and he temporarily detained some of his political opponents. As this example demonstrates, modest corruption may be used toward positive and creative ends, allowing for real improvements in people’s lives. (Also, check out the most recent Slate Political Gabfest for more on this topic.)

Similarly, Congress has largely abolished the use of earmarked spending in recent years, but earmarks were widely used to broker compromises that allowed budgets to pass and important bills to become law. Even in very polarized times, presidents could enact their agendas in part by buying members of Congress off with pork projects.

Yet it would be difficult to classify the actions by Christie’s office in this same way. At least from what we know of the story so far, it involves ruining people’s commutes to Manhattan to seek retribution against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid. This is a particularly self-defeating abuse for several reasons:

1. It served no positive end. Christie didn’t create anything by snarling traffic for days. It’s pure revenge. (And it’s not the first time.)

2. The traffic jammed affected hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t Mayor Sokolich. Indeed, Sokolich is one of the few people in North Jersey who doesn’t have to use a bridge or tunnel to get to work.

3. It was obvious long before the election that Christie was going to win in a landslide, and he didn’t need Sokolich’s help to do it. And really, a Republican is angry that a Democrat isn’t endorsing his candidacy? That’s a pretty low bar for payback.

4. It’s not like the governor of New Jersey has a “Bridge Traffic On/Off” button on his desk. Doing this requires the coordination of many people across several different governments. It’s hard to keep a secret under such circumstances.

Most forms of political corruption lie somewhere in between creativity and venality. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley personified this sort of activity in the mid-20th century. He controlled thousands of city employees and used favoritism and cronyism to build not only his personal empire, but a modern metropolis, helping to literally shape downtown Chicago and turn the city into the thriving place it is today. But he did so through a variety of unsavory means, including having police collect bribes from pimps and drug dealers while failing to stop actual crimes.

Contrast this with President Obama. His administration has been notably lacking in major scandals. And yet, perhaps not coincidentally, he is regularly criticized for a lack of leadership. Some of those criticisms are, of course, ridiculous, such as when Maureen Dowd complained that the behavior of Republican members of Congress was awful and that this was Obama’s fault. But to the extent that there’s some truth there, it may well be that leadership requires some unsavory arm-twisting and palm-greasing, and when we elect people who are either unwilling or unable to use such tactics, we end up with a political system that is clean but unable to actually accomplish anything.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.