What’s acceptable for politicians and what’s not? A PublicMind poll conducted at Fairleigh Dickinson University asked respondents about the ethics of helping political allies by passing legislation or contacting government agencies on their behalf or funneling state money to their businesses … or accepting large gifts and vacations from them. It found that the majority, regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans, said all actions were unacceptable. But when asked specifically about the indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez on corruption charges, their answers change. Professor Dan Cassino, who directs experimental research, analyzed the poll.
When people were asked directly if they think Menendez is guilty, Republicans are far more likely to think he is guilty compared to Democrats. However when people were asked about accepting gifts from supporters when there was no specific politician mentioned, there was a surprising shift in answers.
“This is what’s really interesting. In general when we ask about corruption you find that the responses are very, very apart in the Senate. Republicans think that what a Republican politician does is OK, Democrats think what Democratic politicians do is OK. So what we tried to do is divorce it from any actual politicians in these questions. When we did that we found that there’s widespread agreement between Republicans, Democrats and Independents on what is and is not acceptable,” he said. “For instance, 88 percent of New Jersey, from both parties, said it’s unacceptable for politicians to accept large gift and travel from campaign donors. When we contrast the people who say what Menendez did is OK, we find a large portion of Democrats think that the principle is bad to accept large gifts, but they don’t think that Menendez did anything wrong.”
Cassino says it all has to do with something called motivational reasoning.
“It’s the mindset of ‘I don’t want to think that a politician that I like has done something bad and I want to think that the politicians that I don’t like have done something bad.’ People are really using their feelings first and the facts come afterwards. They’re using the facts to explain their feelings. If you like Menendez, you’re going to find reasons to like him and say, ‘Well what he did is OK’ while thinking that in general when politicians do these sort of things it’s not,” he said.
One of the questions that yielded the highest level of acceptability among the New Jersey populous was in response to the question of if people find it acceptable for politicians to funnel state money into businesses owned by political allies.
“Ninety-three percent of New Jersey said it’s unacceptable for politicians to funnel state money into businesses and I think part of that is because money’s involved. It occurs to people, ‘Wait, these are my tax dollars.’ New Jersey is so heavily over taxed they don’t want to see their tax dollars going anywhere,” Cassino said. “We should note that all these things we’re asking about have been alleged about New Jersey politicians in the last year or two. New Jersey’s perceived to be, and perhaps is, one of the most corrupt states in the union. Our results are showing that people in New Jersey are not sanguine about it. They still think that corruption is a problem. They still think that it’s unacceptable even though they see it happening all the time.”
There was a difference in answers between generations and age groups, especially in response to items like fixing parking tickets.
“When we ask about fixing parking tickets, which is kind of a classic thing politicians are supposed to be doing to help their political allies, 90 percent of New Jersey say that it’s unacceptable and 8 percent of New Jersey says it’s acceptable. However when we ask this question to the youngest voters, people 18 to 34, they’re twice as likely to say it’s acceptable. Sixteen percent say that it’s acceptable. I think that’s mostly because that group is most likely to get parking tickets and traffic tickets in the first place, so the idea that they could fix them for them may be wishful thinking on their part more than anything,” Cassino said.
Compared to the other corruption related scenarios, 23 percent of people responded that it’s OK for politicians to speak to government agencies on behalf on friends or political allies.
“This is actually very close to what the politicians are supposed to be doing. Politicians are supposed to be working as ombudsmen, talking to government agencies on behalf of their constituents. People are more willing to let politicians do that. We were actually surprised that the second highest rate of acceptability was for politicians passing bills that would help political allies. The idea here is that it’s almost part of what the politicians are supposed to be doing anyway, so the fact that they’re doing it on behalf of their political allies isn’t as troubling,” he said. “I think this also corresponds very nicely with what we’re finding about Sen. Menendez. The idea that he says he contacted the State Department on behalf of one campaign contributor trying to get visas for some of that contributor’s friends — people don’t see that as nearly as much of a problem as the accepting of gifts and travel.”