In politics, where there’s a stink … there’s probably a rotting fish

Embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s scandal provides a wonderful case study in politics as usual. Not that I think he’s done something wrong – at this point I don’t know. But having been in politics for a long time, where there’s smoke there’s fire. Let me explain.

Governor Christie has been accused of using his political power to punish opponents – in this case, he’s accused of using political power to close a lane of freeway to inconvenience an opponent. Actually, all things considered in the game of politics, playing with an opponent in that manner is one of the tamest things I’ve heard of.

Let’s get real.

Politics is a nasty business because people can be nasty. We take opposition very personally. We don’t like to be criticized. We certainly don’t like to be accused of wrongdoing. And politics has all of that in spades. Most of all, politicians enjoy power because they’re human and human beings enjoy power. Government concentrates power, and that’s why we see so many bad examples in politics. But it’s no different in the business world or in sports.

The problem has as much to do with gaming ethics as it does a man’s character. Most politicians and their supporters view politics as a zero-sum game. People are objects to be stepped over, stepped around or stepped on. It’s true that we don’t have enough time in the day to respond to critics. But, in general, we don’t go the extra mile to converse or explain or debate civilly because it’s simply easier to attack an opponent. And there’s more money in conflict than in peacekeeping.

Though under criminal investigation, Jason Powers has been a state fixture in Utah politics for several years. He’s known for his infamous political attack ads. But attacks work! Campaigns couldn’t wait to hire him. For a very obvious reason, voters actually like attack ads and negative campaigning – the obvious reason being that they’re easier to understand and process than actually having to think seriously about important issues of our day. It’s much easier and much less time consuming to see every opponent as a crook or a bigot or a wheeler-dealer than it is to actually get to know her.

There’s a reason why it’s also easier to solicit donations for political campaigns than for think tanks or other good causes – even though think tanks and good causes have a more lasting and principled impact on the world. Investing in candidates is more appealing than investing in ideas. It’s more exciting and it doesn’t require any thought at all.

In other words, folks, we bring on this bad political behavior ourselves. The more responsible citizens pay attention to public affairs and less attention to a politician’s private affairs, the less bad behavior we’ll see. Yes, I know, bad behavior will continue even under the best of circumstances. It’s human nature, but that’s why our Founding Fathers sought limited government and fewer opportunities for people to behave badly.

It doesn’t matter if Governor Christie knew or didn’t know what his staff was up to. In politics, the fish rots from the head down. Every employer knows you can’t avoid a few bad apples, but, as we’ve seen in the Utah Attorney General’s scandal, leaders set the culture of an office. And we call them leaders because we want them to set the best example possible. We want them to be their better selves. We need them to be their better selves. And, when they’re not, we give them the boot.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

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