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The Future of Patronage

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Tar-Baby say nothin’—Mr. Fox lay low. Brer Rabbit, he butted ez hard ez he could, An’ his head it stuck, let ‘im do what he would.

Uncle Remus

The spoils system is the tar-baby of American poli-

tics. It cannot be handled by reformers with the

clean dispatch which undoubtedly characterized St. George’s attack on the dragon. Although the battle has been going on for a long time, we are still stuck with the problem.

Improving government personnel means more than a fight against corruption and inertia in public life. It calls for an examination of certain existing values and underlying interests, and it involves changing one set of problems for another. If patronage were all evil, the task of the reformer would be simpler. There is something to be said on both sides, but who will plead for the devil? My thesis is this: political patronage has persisted despite generations of criticism because it has met, however faultily, a real need of our governmental system. It cannot be entirely eliminated without affecting our party system and the relations between the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government. Hence civil service reform is not a question of exchanging good for evil; it is a question of either tolerating a necessary evil or of basically altering the system.

Politics in appointments cannot be treated like Sir Hiram Maxim’s aching tooth. When he could stand the annoyance no longer he had the tooth extracted, and then with great satisfaction watched it ache and ache and ache. All evil does not lie embodied in the spoils system. It may be a symptom of corruption; but “politics” can never be extracted by a simple twist of the wrist so long as men are mortal. Selfish partisanship is no basis for appointments, but we have learned from experience that to extend the merit system is also not enough. Political favoritism can invade any civil service system, no matter what its formal structure is.

Hitherto, we have approached civil service reform from two angles: we have stressed the evil of spoils and we have emphasized the need of improvement in methods of recruiting, promotion, retirement, et cetera. But we have not faced frankly the real obstacle to an actual improvement in conditions. How are we to reconcile a great extension of the competitive civil service with our party system? It is bad politics to defend political patronage, but it is often the best politics to use it. Today, in the struggle for better government personnel, politicians are all on the side of the angels. Few, indeed, are the men in public life willing to champion the practice of awarding office to the members of the winning party; but fewer still are those who entirely refrain from thus rewarding their supporters.


The true significance of any system is found in its strengths rather than its weaknesses. For example, the real importance of Nazi-ism lies in its capacity for uniting and strengthening the German nation. We may deplore its methods, but its strength lies in its accomplishments rather than in its abuses; and hence we must understand its positive qualities. Similarly, the constructive aspects of patronage explain its continuance. The goal of American politics must be unity and agreement. Strong leadership and discipline may be necessary to attain these aims. But in our governmental structure and in our constitutional theories we discount such aims, and we have hitherto preferred to approach them indirectly. When the force of circumstances outweighed contradictory principles, we have resorted to unofficial devices, such as lobbies and other pressure groups. Such associations have a place in our representative system, but they have no right to coerce our representatives. Admittedly one of the most disturbing developments threatening democratic government is the ease with which organized minorities have forced our legislatures to grant appropriations and other concessions.

We condemn lobbying and we damn patronage; and rightly so. Some day, perhaps, the abuses of both can be eliminated. Meanwhile, it is interesting to observe that the force of patronage may be used to offset the coercion of the lobby.

A man running for public office must have support. To get such support he must either build an organization for himself or depend upon an existing organization. He cannot get a dependable following unless he has something to offer the individuals who give their time and energy to his cause. Congressmen often lament the great nuisance caused by patronage. With ten applicants for one office, they say, political appointment creates nine enemies and one ingrate. They complain that they waste much valuable time in seeking positions for constituents, but they admit, when pressed, that such efforts are not without value. Patronage is the most direct means whereby a politician may develop an organization for himself. The importance to the politician of professional workers cannot be overestimated. As in any other walk of life, the professional worker is more effective than the amateur. Control over forty or fifty positions provides a Congressman with the means of building a staunch personal following, which becomes the nucleus for an organization to aid in campaigning and in meeting the demands of constituents. With a small band of dependable supporters a Congressman can enlist scores of voluntary workers and develop an effective organization. We have yet to find a substitute for party patronage as the cement for constructing effective political support.

Comparisons are frequently drawn between conditions in this country and in Great Britain. The Member of Parliament does not have to rely upon political patronage; why then, it is asked, should our politicians? But such reasoning is specious. The progress of civil service reform in Great Britain was paralleled by ever more centrally controlled and disciplined party organizations. When party discipline was slack, patronage was of more importance. In the eighteenth century, the British King and Prime Minister found it necessary to bribe individual M. P.s, because the government could not rely upon a strong party organization. But today the candidate in Great Britain largely depends upon his party headquarters for aid, direction, and funds. Often he is sent by his party chiefs to stand for a particular constituency. Even in cases where the candidate “nurses” his constituency with gifts to local charities and benefactions to individuals and organizations, he remains to most voters a symbol whereby they register their approval or disapproval of the government in office.

In this country, on the other hand, our parties are loose confederations. We are a continental peoplr living under a Federal government. Political issues are much less clearly drawn than they are in England. Our political problem is the compromise of sectional and class interests. Our politicians identify themselves with localities, and political careers depend upon the support of these home communities. Sometimes, as in the 1930 election, candidates can ride into office on the coat-tails of the President as party leader. But if a man hopes for a long political career, he must build himself into his locality. He may do this in various ways: he may identify himself with the business community; he may ally himself with labor; he may depend chiefly upon the farmers for his support. In these cases his political machine grows out of such organizations as local business associations, labor unions, or the farmers’ grange. However, except in agricultural districts, a politician can rarely serve a single occupational group. If he is to win the votes he needs, he must draw from various groups. The chances are that a man with such a diversified following is more representative of the whole community.

As a politician grows less dependent upon any one group, he stands in greater need of an organization of his own. And it is here that patronage enters the picture. It is all very well to talk of an “interested citizenry,” but a candidate needs dependable subordinates ready to answer his commands and attend to dull routine. If the candidate relies upon organizations such as labor unions, chambers of commerce, reform organizations, or public utilities, he is committed to representing their interests. Patronage, by providing a representative with an organization of his own, often enables him to take a more independent attitude in the face of the many special-interest groups with which he must deal, both at home and in Congress. Much criticism of the evils of the spoils system comes from such special interests. If the representative can, by the use of patronage, add the support of the floating voter to that of the traditional party follower, he is not forced to make concessions to the single-aim voters. Of course, abuses can be found; but they are not all on one side, for the single-aim voter may be as great a menace to democracy as indifferent citizens or machine voters. Popular government depends on compromise, and the single-aim mentality is intransigent.


A representative must feel free to compromise; legislation is otherwise impossible. But leadership is also essential if support is sought for a program designed for the general welfare. Recent sessions of Congress suggest that a substantial number of Federal positions for presidential distribution greatly facilitate “leadership.” Civil service reform would certainly cut down the Chief Executive’s powers of persuasion by limiting his patronage. On the other hand, if the President is able to retain a powerful popular following by skilful use of the radio, the need for using henchmen in local communities and rewarding them with jobs is lessened.

However, even with a wide popular support, the President needs a departmental personnel that will carry out government policy vigorously. Even able administrators do not agree on the extent to which political appointments should be eliminated. The important question is whether the merit system can be reconciled with the highest administrative efficiency. To say that all officials except those concerned with “policy making” should be under the merit system means little. Any such distinction must be highly artificial.

Some officials believe that the predominance of permanent civil servants in certain departments has had an arid effect upon new lines of policy. Flexibility is more difficult to secure under such circumstances. Moreover, our Federal departments are federations of bureaus, and a Secretary needs numerous staff officers loyal to him in order to create and maintain a consistent policy within his department. To carry out new national policies requires the vigor and enthusiasm of personal conviction on the part of administrators.

In our states, many officials protest that civil service examinations test facility for the performance of specific duties rather than general ability. Examiners fear that unsuccessful applicants or politicians might accuse them of asking irrelevant questions if they tried to test for broad capacity. Also, the difficulty of firing civil service employees who prove unsatisfactory has made discipline harder to maintain in some offices. These officials ask for wider discretion in selecting applicants and in removing subordinates.

This criticism of the present civil service is not offered as a defense of patronage but rather as a protest against the complacent acceptance of a narrow “reform” program as the solution to our personnel problems. No one can object to appointments based on “merit.” The difficulty lies in devising means to this end. The problem is not how shall we chase the spoilsman out of office, but how can we reconcile the needs of the service with the needs of the political party and still get an efficient public service.

Today many reformers insist that all appointments be brought under the existing merit system. Politicians are divided. Some definitely support patronage. Others give lip service to reform. A few would extend the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Commission over most Federal jobs. This is becoming good politics for politicians interested in building strong national parties. The battle is not between men of good will and politicians of selfish intentions; the issue is rather between nationalism and sectionalism, between a national bureaucracy and local jobbery.

If the Administration at Washington increases the number of Federal employees under the control of the Civil Service Commission, it may decrease its own power of “persuasion,” but it also reduces the available materials with which the Congressman can build his own machine. Deprived of jobs to distribute, the local politician becomes more dependent on the favors that he can procure for his home constituency from the Washington bureaucrats. In lieu of patronage, the representative must rely upon grants for public works, for generous relief allotments, and for various loans. One of the most striking attributes of the Roosevelt Administration is the enormous variety of facilities set up to aid various classes. Under Hoover there was the Tariff Commission for the manufacturers and the R.F.C. for the bankers. The latter has now extended its bounty to the cities, and our mayors have discovered a generous Uncle Samuel to tide them over their difficulties. The direct aid to the farmers, to home-owners, to the unemployed, need only be mentioned. We should not forget that in the past the local machine, supported on patronage, has served an important social purpose as a charitable institution. Its very importance has been an indictment of the inadequacy of existing relief facilities. As governmental employment bureaus are extended and as old-age and sickness insurance is provided, the machine will be undermined. Changes such as these will reduce partisan patronage by robbing it of its function. Equally important is the active role that the Federal government has assumed in behalf of labor.

The hand of the President is felt in innumerable other local affairs, while his voice at strategic intervals engulfs the home itself. Vast regions such as the Tennessee Valley are being changed from national headquarters. Local politicians seem little more than puppets as they watch this work progress. These activities are all familiar enough in themselves, but their full political significance becomes clearer if considered in relation to the patronage problem.

Partisan jobbery as we have known it seems to be on its way out. In its place, a new national bureaucracy is bringing new problems. In the past our politics has been sectional because the economic interests of a great continent have inevitably been diversified. We have distrusted a strong central government and feared bureaucracy even more than we have abhorred corruption and favoritism in public office. Washington seemed far away, and consequently the control of the local situation was of first importance to the politician. He could best gain power by controlling appointments to local office. As issues transcending locality arose, special organizations were established to represent these interests. The manufacturers developed their associations and labor its federations. Bankers sought national organizations, as did all the economic interests of the nation. Patronage and lobbying are both direct consequences of the localism and sectionalism of American politics.

The present concern over broad national issues that affect the average citizen in his daily life means that the localism of our political life is becoming of less importance. If such issues hold the center of the stage and if national elections turn upon the opinions that voters hold concerning these problems, then lobbying and patronage will lose much of their reason for being. Economic clashes will then be compromised in the public forum rather than through secret bargaining, and the voter will have a greater stake in an election than securing a job as postmaster. What is the ultimate outcome likely to be?


In the future the issue will not be drawn simply between petty politicians seeking jobs and non-partisans seeking good government. Even in the past civil service reformers have been only one factor in the fight to extend the merit system and to improve government personnel. The protests of “public-spirited citizens” by no means fully account for the present extension of civil service status and protected tenure. Today the battle lines are becoming even more varied. Important social classes, such as organized labor, regulated business, and ambitious college men, have entered the lists.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that more and more people realize how closely their own interests interlock with the efficient administration of national affairs. The recent campaign for better government personnel conducted by the National League of Women Voters is a good example. The public spirit of this organization is beyond question, and in the past its interests have ranged over a great variety of public questions. Its better government personnel program may be just another issue that ladies’ gatherings will discuss and then put aside; or it may have a deeper significance which will keep it before the League for many years. Does the concern of the League of Women Voters in this personnel issue mean that its members recognize in it a direct economic and social interest? Does it mean that they see the meaning that a career civil service may have for their children and for themselves? Do they see the effect that maladministration may have upon their own affairs? An identification of such a group interest with the reform movement may well leave a lasting impress. It may bring into public life a higher proportion of those young men and women who have enjoyed the social and educational opportunities of the prosperous middle class. And it is members of this class that have not heretofore competed strongly for places in the governmental service. The interest of the National League of Women Voters in a better government personnel is indicative of an important change in social attitude. If this results in the increased prestige of public service, the gain will be great.

Few deliberate moves have been made in the last few years to render service in the Federal government more attractive to college men, yet as a class they have become immensely interested. Is this a temporary enthusiasm born of the depression and its attendant lack of opportunities in private business? This is hardly an adequate explanation. The increased sphere of government activity and the positive nature of its work have fired the imagination and aroused the ambition of these young men. If government is to be as important as recent trends suggest, then it will attract the ambitious and the intelligent.

Here are fundamental factors working toward reform. Likewise, the technical nature of most governmental work means that only the properly trained can do the work. This in itself has a restraining effect upon the spoilsman. Another and more important result is that men within the government service are forced to consider ways of improving the personnel. Perhaps the strongest impulse at the present time is coming from such officials.

Other powerful groups are selfishly interested in improving the calibre of government employees. These groups do not argue in generalities; they have limited and definite objectives. They want efficient work from the officials with whom they must deal. Civil service reform to them is the practical question of how to get better men in specific government services. Thus, organized shippers want the Interstate Commerce Commission to have employees able to argue effectively with spokesmen for the railroads. In similar fashion, the American Bankers’ Association has long urged the non-partisan appointment of bank examiners. Many similar examples could be cited. Still another factor is the influence of government employee unions. Organizations such as the National Federation of Federal Employees have brought pressure to bear upon Congress and pushed through remedial legislation. The Welsh Reclassification Act was passed largely because of the efforts of organized employees. Most important of all is the growing tendency not to protect ourselves against government, but rather to use governmental agencies for protecting ourselves against certain consequences of our social and economic institutions. Such compensatory devices as the R.F.C., the C.C.C., and the A.A.A., and such regulatory agencies as the S.E.C., are good examples of our changing ideas of what government should do.

Thus we find the interest of various politically potent groups identified with the movement for eliminating the spoilsman. Government is extending its scope beyond the performance of its routine duties. Safe, easy jobs have been the political plums of the past. Now the government’s task is becoming more creative, and it can offer real careers to men of constructive imagination. It is undertaking functions that will vitally benefit social groups, sections, and occupations as never before. The administration in power will then have more than loaves and fishes to distribute. Patronage will be far outweighed by the influence of vast appropriations, the extension of government credit, and the development of huge regions and great natural resources. Politicians will have higher stakes than jobs over which to quarrel. The powerful interests involved will demand that they be efficiently served by trained officials.

In the face of these developments, party leaders will have to realize that high personnel standards must be maintained and that their party cannot afford to give jobs to stupid fellows. The party program cannot be achieved if ineffective men are charged with its execution. Failure in administration will mean failure at the polls: therefore, it is good politics to appoint good men. It may sometimes be good politics to appoint good non-partisan men; at other times, it may be better politics to appoint a good partisan. Such questions cannot be met in a priori fashion. The weakness of a merit system lies not in its emphasis upon “merit” but in its overemphasis upon “system.” Flexibility is essential in all human undertakings, and not less so in government.


Government, in assuming the greater responsibilities thrust upon it, has need of the best the community can offer in all branches, whether administrative, judicial, or legislative. “Civil service reform” is just one aspect of this larger problem. We shall not get far if all attention is focused on “better administration.” If administrators are to be effective they must have the support of elected representatives who cherish the same values. Well-trained officials can do little if they must act under the orders of politicians drawn from machines supported by ignorant voters. As a matter of fact, no such situation is possible. Representative assemblies are not going to create an administrative corps differing greatly from their own image. There will always be a parallel between the kind of men in elective office and the calibre of those in administrative posts. Legislators who value education and training for the public service are likely to have such qualifications themselves. When voters regard seriously the need for ability and expertness in public office, whether legislative or administrative, we will be likely to find men with such qualities in governmental positions. We must consider civil service reform along with the reform of politicians in policy-determining positions.

This is not falling back on the old bromide that every advance depends on public opinion. We need not wait for this popular spontaneous combustion. The sheer importance of the personnel problem will make its neglect impossible. But basic forces are working for reform—some altruistic in purpose, some narrowly greedy, some working with enlightened self-interest. These forces, however, are contributory, and not completely determinative. The final solution of the government personnel problem will be determined by the way in which our parties develop, and by the needs that the Federal government is made to meet. The elimination of partisan appointments means changes more fundamental than cleaning up corruption and increasing efficiency. Patronage is not an extraneous abuse; it is still a part of our political system. Although there are many indications today that it is on the way out, it will not disappear entirely until our parties become truly national. The cost of eliminating patronage is the centralization of authority in the Federal government and the development of disciplined national party organizations held together by powerful leadership and firm faith. We can pull away from the tar-baby of spoils only by jumping into the brier patch of strong national parties and the extension of bureaucratic activity. May we fare as well as Brer Rabbit 1


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