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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.

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