New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption

Whenever a politician is charged or convicted with violating the public trust, I am asked by my students, reporters and friends why this happens with such regularity in New Jersey. What is it about New Jersey that fosters such a climate of corruption?

The best answer I can give is that the roots of this corruption are found in our political culture, which was shaped by the founding of New Jersey as a colony, and has been reinforced by the institutions and practices that have developed since. This notion was fully developed by my mentor, Daniel J. Elazar, PhD., who articulated a theory that the American political culture was as an amalgamation of three subcultures. These three subcultures were introduced in the original colonies by the various groups that settled there, and thus are geographically based. In the Mid-Atlantic States, including New Jersey, Elazar describes the political subculture as the "individualistic subculture."

The original groups that settled in New Jersey were Dutch and English capitalists. As a colony, New Jersey was one of the few proprietary colonies established by the British crown. This meant that the territory of New Jersey divided between East and West was to be sold to profit its proprietors Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley. They established a limited government whose purpose was to establish and protect property rights. In this limited role politics became just another meets by which individuals sought to improve their station in life. Indeed, after New Jersey was consolidated into a royal colony in 1702, our first governor, Lord Edward Hyde Cornbury, was recalled to England under a cloud of bribery and land speculation charges. This established a foundation for the political culture that continues to influence politics in the Garden State.

In our individualistic subculture, the role of government is considered limited to responding to the specific demands of the citizens. Government is not created to establish a better society rather government's role is to promote commerce. As a result, it becomes another actor in commerce that competes for and distributes resources such as tax dollars, patronage jobs, contracts and zoning decisions. In this way participating in government is a career choice that one makes much like any other profession. As a professional, one is expected to make a decent living. Therefore a certain amount of corruption is acceptable and tolerated, since government officials have traditionally been unpaid or under paid. This also helps explain the tradition of dual office holding that developed in the state.

Politics as a career also helps to explain why there are so many local governments in New Jersey (we rank second among the 50 states with 566 municipalities, over 600 school districts and scores of special purpose districts). The thousands of localities mean that there are thousands of office holders and plenty of opportunity for individuals to participate.

Average citizens are not encouraged to participate, nor are they discouraged. For the individual citizen, the decision to participate in the political process is often based on how much it benefits the individual. This ranges from voting for candidates who promise benefits for your group, to bidding on public contract. The latter gave rise to the infamous practice of "pay to play."

Artificial barriers to participating in the process may or may not be imposed just like barriers to the marketplace may or may not be imposed by government. Elected officials will break down such barriers if it means expanding the electorate in a way that will benefit them.

The individualistic political culture places a great emphasis on political parties, which are charged with distributing the resources of government, maintaining political discipline, recruiting potential leaders and winning elections. Political parties in this system tend to be less ideological and focus primarily on winning elections, since it is only through winning that the largess of government can be distributed to its supporters. This has given rise to the duopoly enjoyed by the Republican and Democratic parties and the significant barriers that have been erected to prevent third parties from being formed and sustained.

Because this culture create a system that is based on "quid pro quo" relationships, elected officials are reactive in creating public policy and will only propose innovative policies when there is significant public demand for such policies. This reflects the reality that one must be elected to maintain one's office, so officials need to respond to public demands.

What I have described explains how the system can run amok. However, for the most part the system has worked fairly well, and as noted, officials are generally responsive to the public. It should also be noted that there are thousands of elected and appointed officials who are honest and seek to serve the public good. However, as the arrests of July 23rd show, the system does breakdown on a seemingly regular basis.

What can be done? It is difficult to alter a system that has been in the making for the past 400 years. Recent develops in the media and the redistricting of legislative and congressional boundaries have significantly decreased the chance of effective change. The decline of local newspapers and media outlets that often served as watchdogs on politicians means that the chances of public exposure have decreased dramatically, giving corrupt officials one less thing to worry about. This has always been a problem in New Jersey which is sandwiched between two huge media markets New York and Philadelphia. Since many residents work in those metropolises, they are less concerned about local affairs and issues. The rise of new media outlets like PolitickerNJ might fill the void that is being created by the demise of traditional media, but that remains to be seen.

The lack of a watchdog media is compounded by the practice of redrawing legislative and congressional districts that benefit incumbents by making them less competitive and essentially eliminating any chance the minority party has of capturing the seat. Without a responsible opposition party, those in power are free to operate with impunity. After the 2010 census, these districts should be redrawn to encourage electoral competition and not to protect incumbents.

The tradition of home rule and the existence of so many small municipalities also contributes to this problem. Most communities in New Jersey are "one-party towns" with no meaningful opposition party of which to speak. One way to reinvigorate an effective two-party system is to provide guaranteed minority party representation on councils and boards. This will give the opposition party a seat at the table and help ensure that policies receive some measure of scrutiny.

Much more can be done, but these would be key first steps

Joseph Marbach, Ph.D. is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall University. He can be reached at New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption