Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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