Politics: Spoils System

Barack Obama and David Axelrod at the White House
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 17, 2009: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) walks with White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod (R) down the colonnade before departing the White House. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The spoils system refers to the process whereby elected officials reward political supporters with government jobs. The goes back to President Andrew Jackson. The term was meant to be pejorative. It was related to a speech by Senator William L. Marcy who said, “To the victors belong the spoils.”

In a lot of ways, the spoils system makes sense. Once elected, political leaders need subordinates around them who are loyal and will keep the leader’s best interest in mind.

With a campaign just ended, campaign staffers need employment. Conveniently, the leader-elect has jobs to fill. Hard-working campaign staffers can slide into junior-level positions; campaign managers and strategists can be slotted into upper-level positions, and political allies can be given plum jobs as repayment for their public endorsements and behind-the-scenes work securing support from big money donors.

Government organizations still use policy-laden hiring processes to fill jobs; however, those who benefit from the spoils system are often hired in spite of policies and processes designed to ensure fair competition in hiring. When the big boss says to hire someone, that someone gets hired.

Examples:

While the spoils system has been prevalent in the federal government, it is also at play in state and local governments as well. Here are some examples of the spoils system at work:

  • When a candidate for the US presidency wins an election, current and former elected officials of the new president’s political party make up the bulk of the Cabinet. However, awarding supporters with jobs does not end there. Many of the president’s campaign staff are awarded White House jobs and positions at executive branch agencies. After serving as the Barack Obama campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod took a job in the White House as Senior Advisor to the President which he held from January 2009 to January 2011. He left the White House to take a job with Obama’s re-election campaign.

  • After working on numerous campaigns over his career, Karl Rove found himself rewarded with a Senior Adviser position and later Deputy Chief of Staff in the George W. Bush administration after working on several of Bush’s campaigns on his ascension through public offices to the US presidency. Bush called Rove “The Architect” for Rove’s work on Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign against Senator John Kerry.

  • The spoils system isn’t limited to presidential politics. Say a citizen is elected as mayor of a large US city. Under the strong mayor form of government, the mayor typically appoints one or more deputy mayors to help run the day-to-day operations of the city while the mayor handles external affairs. The mayor must also appoint department heads. There are plenty of jobs available for the mayor to implement the spoils system. Campaign staffers and relatives of donors may be in line for jobs.

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